The best moments in my teaching career come from reading meaningful reflection papers. This semester one student’s paper resonated very strongly with me. I’m so heartened that she has gained so much from my classes.
Here’s what she wrote:
“What did I learn?” is a phrase that I would often avoid asking or answering in my life. The fact that I might not really know or not knowing what I don’t know makes me feel uncomfortable and ashamed. However, knowing that we are the only species that ask questions, I am now changing my opinion and instead[, I now] ask questions every time I feel comfortable about a situation. The fear of feeling ashamed should not be the blocking stone to knowing more about myself and the world. The desire to be right could be the driving force in life, nonetheless, it is sometimes a double-edged sword that blocks us [from moving] forward in knowing more about the world. Asking good questions, identifying confirmation bias, disconfirmation, etc., mastering all these cocneptual tools require continuous training and practising. An active learning environment is important for questioning [in order for it] to become an active habit. Life changes when we step out from our comfort zone.
I think there’s something from this reflection that’s worth learning and remembering.
I seem to have injured my right hand – once again – from writing too much.
I can’t tell if it’s a muscular problem or if there’s some issue with the nerves. I experience pain, numbness, and weakness in my right hand all at the same time. It’s a strange feeling to have. I don’t know how to explain the sensation (or lack of it).
It got so bad that I couldn’t hold a pair of chopsticks last week. I could still hold a pen, but it was difficult trying to control the movement.
Last week, I decided to see a doctor about it. The doctor thinks that it has something to do with the nerves in my neck. That’s scary. I did an x-ray but the report hasn’t come back yet. I’ll know the answer soon.
I figured I should learn to write with my left-hander just in case my right hand doesn’t recover, or if treatment to fix my right hand is beyond what I can afford. It’s probably a useful skill to be ambidextrous anyway.
One of the first things I did last week was to train myself to use chopsticks with my left hand. That has worked out quite well. It’s still not perfect. I mean, I can’t pick up noodles as easily as before, but it works sufficiently well for me to finish a bowl of noodles.
But the success of chopstick-use has inspired me to try using my left-hand for other things.
I’m now training my left-hand to use the mouse. This hasn’t been going as well as I hoped. It really takes a lot of patience. The problem is that my left hand isn’t as agile and flexible as my right hand. I move the mouse pointer slower than my right hand, and even so, I still end up clicking the wrong things every now and then.
One thing I realised from this experience is that my mouse is not ergonomic at all. Just a short period of use and my left hand would cramp. Perhaps that is why my right hand is now in this sad situation. Ironically, the mouse I bought had an ergonomic design. I’m trying to find an ergonomic solution, but so far the ones I’ve seen are really ugly. Do you have a mouse to recommend?
I have also tried learning to write with my left hand. Capital letters are fine. They look like the writing of a 3 year old, but it’ll do for now, I guess. I still have a lot of difficulty writing out small letters. I think the problem lies in the fact that there are more curved lines in small letters.
Last week, after months of procrastination, I finally tried my hand at film-making.
In this past year, I’ve watched quite a number of breath-taking documentaries and online courses, and I have been quite inspired to make my own videos.
Those who know me would know that I’ve been working on the production of online course videos for some time. However, I’ve not had much experience with narrating or speaking in front of a camera. But most important of all, I’ve not had the experience of writing a script, which I think, is so central to film-making.
I think it would be worthwhile to gain the experience.
I decided to start small, so as to learn from the mistakes and problems that arise along the way.
I must say that the experience of writing a script is very different from writing a blog article. It took me several days to ponder about how I should present the content. The biggest difference is having to imagine what sort of scenes would complement the words of the narrative.
It is challenging, but overall, the experience has been fun!
I’ve named this short film, “The Ocean of Human Existence.”
This film is based on the advice I received from a senior of mine back in my undergraduate days. His advice is, by far, the most beautiful words of wisdom I’ve ever heard. Back then, I was at a low, overwhelmed and stressed out with many issues in life, but upon hearing his advice, I felt enlightened, liberated from all the cares and burdens of this world.
This has been my guiding principle ever since.
Of course, the first time you encounter such a message, it might sound rather depressing. But there is something truly liberating about it if spend time thinking about it.
This film is meant to be serious, yet peppered with a dash of light-hearted fun. A nihilistic attitude, you could say, which is quite fitting for the message.
Without further ado, I present you… My first film!
If you enjoyed this video, please thumbs-up this video on YouTube and share it with your friends!
Is it true that everything we do matters in life?
Is it true that we have to get things right every step of the way?
That one wrong move or failure would totally wreck our lives plans?
Is it really true?
Perhaps we think too highly of ourselves.
Perhaps we give ourselves far too much credit for all the successes in life.
Perhaps we don’t really have the power to change the course of our lives.
Perhaps we don’t have the power to change the world.
Perhaps we don’t even have the power to make things right.
Life is like pissing into the ocean of human existence.
Nothing we do matters.
No matter how much you pee into the ocean, the ocean will not turn yellow.
It is only when the world pees with you at the same time that the ocean turns yellow.
Our actions are successful only because favourable conditions are present.
There is an ancient Chinese proverb:
When you drink water, remember the source.
We are where we are today not because of our own efforts alone.
We are who we are, and where we are today
because of the fortunate and unfortunate circumstances
that are beyond anyone’s control.
We are who we are, and where we are today
because of the people around us,
who shaped us, who helped us, who guided us, who taught us.
We are who we are, and where we are today
because we have been pissing into the ocean of human existence
both in good times and bad; with people we love and people we hate.
But, the ocean remains clear.
Nothing we do matters.
Have you ever found yourself in the situation, where you start out your day with some thoughts about what you’re going to do, but the moment you switch on your computer, you suddenly find that you’ve forgotten what exactly you were supposed to do.
And so you sit there feeling rather lost and confused.
Do you get that? Does it happen a lot to you?
I get that a lot. It is as if my computer monitor emits amnesia rays that wipe out one’s short-term memory immediately upon exposure. And then I waste the next hour or so trying to reconstruct or remember everything that was on my mind, with a certain feeling of confusion and helplessness, like a lost child in a crowded marketplace.
It’s terribly frustrating.
Not too long ago, I read an article about developing a good habit of starting the day by transferring everything from one’s mind onto paper.
I think, this should be done before turning on one’s computer.
The author recommended spending at least 10-20 minutes, writing everything that comes to one’s mind, without worrying about organising or structuring the contents of one’s thoughts. It can be in the form of bullet points, mind maps or even prose.
What matters is that you are able to flush everything out of your head, onto paper.
I’ve been experimenting with this for some time now, and I must say that it really helps me out a lot!
As a morning routine and ritual, I now start the day, making myself a cup of coffee, and return to my desk with the computer still turned off. I’ll put my phone aside far away from me, take out my journal and begin writing away.
At the end of this writing exercise, I’ll switch on my computer, and type out everything I wrote, categorising them as tasks to do for the day (or week), or as notes for future reference (and for ease of searching).
If I find myself feeling lost and confused due to the amnesia rays coming from my computer monitor (no, I don’t seriously think there’s amnesia rays coming out of my screen – I’m just joking), I can always refer to the notes I wrote in the morning, and in a matter of minutes, I’m back in action.
I’ve since extended my pen-and-paper only exercise from 20 minutes to an entire hour each day. It seems to me that I write and develop ideas better this way too.
My hour-long ritual of pen and paper now involves writing lengthy pages of ideas (and sometimes blog posts like this).
Yes, there are many distractions on the computer. But I think the presence of the backspace button really alters the way one thinks. The temptation to hit the backspace (or delete) button brings about constant and abrupt halts to one’s thoughts. Ideas don’t flow smoothly from one’s mind to the keyboard.
Whereas, with just a pen and paper, not only are the distractions minimised, but the very absence of the backspace button compels one to chew on an idea first before transferring it to paper.
And when the idea is properly developed, the idea flows from one’s mind onto paper as smoothly as the ink flows from my pen.
Sure, this sounds like I’m re-discovering the invention of fire. But for someone who’s been overly reliant on technology, and have placed great faith for years in the power of technology to do away with the traditional methods, it is truly amazing and bewildering to realise that till now, nothing quite beats the good ol’ pen and paper.
Isn’t it ironic that despite our great advances in technology, no technological solution out there functions quite as well as pen and paper?
A few weeks ago, I attended a soap-making activity with a few colleagues as part of our annual staff bonding.
Many of us were under the impression that we would learn how to make soap itself.
However, it turned out that it was a workshop on how to make your own custom-shaped soap bars. -_-”
It started out with everyone queuing for a cup full of melted soap base. You can purchase this melted soap base as a block or as a bag of flakes, which you melt using the double-boil method. I’m told you can’t just double-boil any random bar of soap. Commercial soaps cannot melt.
Anyway, after we received our cup full of melted soap, we proceeded to the next station. There, we were asked to add skin-safe colouring and some essential oils to give the soap a pleasant smell. There were lavender, lemon, and lemon grass oils.
Once we were done stirring, we were instructed to pour the liquid soap into any of the molds to get the desired shapes. These were ordinary chocolate and baking molds.
That’s pretty much it!
Now, we had to wait for the soap to solidify.
Many of us went for a second round, this time experimenting with making soaps with different layers of colours. To do that, we had to wait for the first layer in the mold to harden a little bit before we could add the next layer of melted soap.
After a long wait, it was time to remove the soap bars from the mold.
Thus far, the activity had been rather boring. But that soon changed to a period of intense excitement.
Who knew that removing soap bars from the mold could be so exciting?
The excitement came from seeing just how pretty the final product looked. It looked absolutely nothing like what we’ve seen in the earlier stages. Even the mold didn’t look that interesting in the beginning.
But it’s not just the pretty shapes that we got. The colours played a huge role in making the soap bars very pretty.
Here’s what my colleagues made:
Here’s the result of experimenting with two layers of colour:
They’re all so pretty!
Wow… Incredible. The unveiling part was really magical. Everyone’s just so amazed by the way the soap looked.
Here’s a look at the soaps we made:
We all agreed that these soaps would make great gifts for Christmas.
I was tempted to make some of these myself at home. But it turns out that the soap base isn’t cheap. As I mentioned earlier, you can’t just melt any random soap bar that you find from the supermarket. It has to be a certain type of soap base. To my horror, these soap base costs a bomb. I haven’t found a cheaper alternative yet.
Anyway, I went home to try it out. Turns out this organic soap was indeed very nice to use. It was very gentle on the skin and it was neither too drying nor too moisturising. Very nice.
The past seven days has been nothing but an intense learning journey for me.
From my thoughts and experiences on my 24-hour plane ride, the materials I read, to the discussions I’ve had with people both in and outside a recent international workshop, I have been overwhelmed by just so many insights and interesting lessons on so many issues covering so many different aspects of life.
So allow me to share with you six of the most interesting lessons I’ve learnt over the past week. I’ll list them here in the order of light-hearted interesting facts, to heavier philosophical insights.
It turns out that the Chinese invented chopsticks because, unlike eating with a fork or spoon, chopsticks allow you to experience the fullness of flavour when you taste your food. The presence of the fork or spoon in your mouth affects the way the food interacts with your tastebuds, thus the taste does not present itself in it’s fullness. Hence, the reason why the Chinese invented something so counter-intuitive to use, and it has since been the preferred utensil for eating.
(After I heard this, I felt like I should try to eat everything with chopsticks just to experience the difference)
2. Intra-mouth Cooking
A Japanese explained to me that many Japanese dishes require you to do the final mixing in your mouth. E.g. you dip a piece of food into a sauce, and put it into your mouth. Or you mix the liquids from two (or more) cups into your mouth. It’s part of a Japanese philosophy (of food), which sees the mouth as the final point where the flavours are harmonised within the mouth of the consumer.
This has been something I’ve long thought about in the Chinese philosophy of cooking, that harmony is not just about the harmony produced in the dishes alone, since one must be able to taste and perceive that harmony within the field of one’s own subjective experience. But it seems that the Japanese have taken it a step further in their understanding of cooking, and made it more explicit. The final touch lies in how much sauce you add to the dish, harmonising the amount of sauce and its flavours with the piece of food, and most importantly, with yourself.
3. Sakura Cherry Blossoms as the Image of the Beauty of Corruption/Decay
When the Japanese sakura flowers (cherry blossoms) blossom, they beautify the trees. But this process of beauty does not end there. Beauty continues to persist as the sakura flowers corrupt and decay, shedding petals onto the ground, beautifying the land on which it grows.
This image of beauty persisting before and during corruption/decay is a very strong image that informs many of the Japanese’s outlook of the negativity of corruption and decay. I like how the Japanese use this image of the sakura flower as a framework for seeing beauty in corruption and decay in many other situations and aspects of life. For would, for us, appear as horrifying ugliness, is seen through a sakura “lens”, and the ugliness is viewed instead as beauty that continues to persists in another form.
4. What Makes Your Life Good?
It’s interesting how for so many centuries, philosophers have asked: What makes a life good? And then they prescribe it as a universal prescription for all to follow. And it’s interesting how in many ways, many of us have lived our lives following after certain abstract models of what the good life is about, e.g. lots of wealth, honour or power, etc.
But a more interesting project would be to reframe the question, and instead ask people: What makes your life good? What makes your life good enough that you’d continue living like this?
This question was inspired by a person who was so intrigued when he saw how happy people were despite living in the slums. He had never seen happiness to such a degree anywhere else. Perhaps we’re mistaken in some ways on our ideas of happiness or at least what would count as a good life, subjectively.
Perhaps we should really examine the lives of many people and ask them, what makes their life good, and that might inform us on the things in life we should value and cherish instead. Perhaps this might lead to a more interesting formulation of the good life.
(If you are willing, please share with me what makes your life good in the comments below. I’d like to hear.)
5. “I know each other so much less well now.”
A few days ago, someone said: “I know each other so much less well now.” The context was that if a meeting goes well, then people will come to realise just how little they know each other. He was suggesting that future meetings should be structured in such a way that by the end of the event, we’d all realise just how little we know about each other.
I think it’s a good quote and one that serves an essential reminder that we can never fully know a person too well.
One of the big obstacles in a relationship with another human being is to think you know him/her so well. And then when conflict arises, you realise how little you know of that person, and then proceed to revise your view of that person as having all these bad traits as the underlying characteristic. And voila, we conclude that we know all that we need to know about him/her.
The person is then judged and condemned for good (as someone who stays forever in this way, as this pathetic person). Strange how we always think we know a person so well.
Stranger still that we always assume that we know ourselves so well, as if our character and person remains the same over the years.
Yes, every good meeting with people should always leave us realising how little we know about each other (and maybe, how little we know ourselves too). I think that should be a good goal to seek. Not every single time we meet up with people, though. That might be too exhausting. But every once in a while would be nice.
6. “Beauty will save the world”
Not fear, not violence, not any technocratic revolutions. “Beauty will save the world.” This was a quote by Dostoevsky. In the novel, The Idiot, the protagonist, a naive prince undergoes tremendous suffering. Yet, it was in his state of ignorance and naiveté, that he comes to a clear realisation of reality:
“What matter though it be only disease, an abnormal tension of the brain, if when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree—an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life?”
And thus the conclusion that beauty will indeed save the world.
It is beauty that draws a person to curiosity and to love. It is beauty that removes fear of the unknown to have reverence for the mysterious. It is beauty that lifts up the human spirit from the darkness of pessimism and cynicism, and raises it to the heights of hope. It is beauty that unites the hearts and minds of people. And it is beauty that will bring people together to make a change.
As some of you may know, I’m in Arizona now for two consecutive conferences. The Fiancée couldn’t come along with me, so she got me to bring Piglet, and to take interesting photos of Piglet doing things while I’m in Arizona – all for the fun of amusing her while I’m away.
It seems like this is becoming a tradition for us. Last year, I went to China and did the same thing. A few months back, The Fiancée went to Hong Kong and did likewise.
Here are some photos of Piglet travelling to the United States. (I have something very interesting to say after the photos, so stay tuned!)
Isn’t Piglet cute?
Anyway, what’s interesting about these photos is that Piglet functions as a “Third Object,” which mediates the content of the picture to the viewer, either to make things interesting (as in the examples above), or to function as a short-cut (or metaphor) to facilitate explanation without having to digress into a long story. (The first and second objects refer to the subject (viewer) and the object of interest in the photo.)
I could easily take photos of all these things without Piglet, and you’d be left with boring images of a passport, safety information card, remote control, seatbelt, and food. Without Piglet, those objects will be mundane, boring, uninteresting. You may look at it once, but you’ll forget about it. You probably wouldn’t be interested enough to find out what’s going on with the picture.
(Of course, I could stand in there and have photos of myself with those things, but then it would seem like I’m a narcissistic selfie freak. But of course, I’m not as cute or interesting as Piglet, so I’ll blend in with the rest of the mundane boring things, and the pictures will remain boring.)
Piglet’s presence in these images above mediates a certain significance and value to the viewer. Piglet – as the Third Object – effectively makes you want to stop and look at the passport. Sure, it’s a passport, but it’s a Piglet with a passport. You’re curiosity is piqued (pardon the pun). You want to know why Piglet is holding the passport, and why that passport is significant at all. In fact, it probably compelled you to read the captions as you want to make sense of it. And though the images and captions revolved around my travel, Piglet – as the third object – mediates that and suddenly makes my boring 24 hour flight appear as though it was a fun-filled adventure of a pig in the air.
I have effectively communicated my boring 24-hour journey to you in a way that is exciting.
That’s the power of the Third Object, the power of Piglet.
But this particular soft toy of Piglet has another interesting dimension. As you can see, Piglet has no mouth. Though Piglet has eyebrows, these brows are very subtle. It increases the efficacy of Piglet as the Third Object.
Because characters without any mouth or eyebrows cannot effectively convey any particular emotion. This emptiness allows the viewer to impose his/her own emotions onto such characters, thus adding a richer dimension to the character. Hello Kitty is a famous example as to why it’s so popular. People can relate with Hello Kitty because she has no mouth, no eyebrows. And so it seems that Hello Kitty is always feeling what you are feeling. She can relate to you, sympathise with you, and in many ways, understand what you are going through.
Something similar is happening here with Piglet. The lack of a mouth and the non-obvious eyebrows allow the viewer to impose their own emotions onto Piglet. As the mediating Third Object, the viewer doesn’t just see a passport or a packet of peanuts, but the viewer also perceives the added dimension of emotion. Piglet looks excited, Piglet looks happy, etc. Whatever expressions or feelings you are perceiving Piglet to have – all that is coming from you – and that’s only possible because Piglet has no expression!
It’s very Buddhist, by the way. Because something is empty, it can be filled with everything.
This is why many people have commented that Piglet is so expressive in these photos. Great job Piglet! Great job!
So yes, that’s the power of the Third Object. Why not give it a try? It’ll certainly make your photos look very interesting.
Here’s a little-known trivia about the English language. I was reading a book on Political Philosophy when I encountered this:
The first thing that went through my head was: What does that mean?
For the rest of the chapter, the author continued to use the word, “desert,” but in ways that were so unusual to me. How is a desert (the one with sand) just in any sense?!
I was scratching my head, constantly trying to figure out what he meant. I had to re-read the section repeatedly, until it occurred to me that perhaps he meant: “dessert”?
Well, unfortunately, I wasn’t happy with the realisation because this unusual usage of “desert” made it so difficult for me to figure out what was going on with the chapter. I complained about this to a few friends. How is it possible that the author could have made such a consistent typo throughout the chapter? How did the editor not spot it?
Yet, isn’t it odd that if it were a consistent typo, the author or editor would have spotted and corrected it?
One of my friends became curious about this incident. He went out to investigate (on Google, of course… Keyboard Warriors, charge!!!), and we came to a very VERY surprising discovery: It’s not a mistake!
If you look at the dictionary for the definition of “desert,” one of the definitions you’ll find is this:
So actually, there isn’t such a thing as “just desserts,” unless you are talking specifically about portioning out the right size of cake and ice cream. It should really be “just deserts”!
But I guess so many of us have been using “just desserts” that it has now become the acceptable form in the English language.
Also, “desert” in “just desert” is pronounced differently from the sand type of “desert.” It sounds like “dessert”, but instead of saying, “dis-seeeert” as you would for cakes and ice-cream, you pronounce it as: “dis-sert” (a very short ‘e’ sound on the second syllable).
So there you go. I learnt something new from this, have you? :)
Two months ago, I finally went to the optician to make a new pair of glasses.
My old pair was due for a change for some time. But I’ve been quite reluctant to change it because of the cost and the effort of having to find a good optician. I made my old pair about 6 years ago, but the optician closed down his shop a few years back.
And so, I’ve been tolerating blurry vision for some time. I had to squint just to see the text clearly from a distance.
The last straw came when, about 2-3 months back, I accidentally flagged the wrong bus. I mistook bus 98 for bus 30. It was so embarrassing, especially when I was the only person at the bus stop. I waved and bowed apologetically to the bus driver who kept staring at me. How on earth did I mistake bus 98 for bus 30 remains a mystery to me. But the fact that my blurry vision led me to see the wrong numbers was a sign that it’s finally time to change my glasses. No more delays!
Also, as a philosopher, I really should take better care of my eyes, especially since I read a lot. I know of two philosophers who have strained their eyes so much that they suffered from detached retinas. Yes, that’s right. The wiring, which connects their eyeballs to their brains, had been under so much strain that it broke and detached itself from the eyeball! Eeew… I squirm every time I think about it.
Indeed, no more delays.
Part of the reason for my reluctance to change the old spectacles was that I couldn’t find a good optician. I’ve heard of some horror stories of friends who paid a lot only to get a pair that was so uncomfortable to wear, that they gave up and returned to their old pair. A big waste of money.
Moreover, it really doesn’t help that these days, I find it difficult to find an optician who’s sincerely motivated to help, or one with a decent set of technical knowledge. I’ve been to several shops but many are just bad or meh.
To my annoyance, those who appear passionate/enthusiastic about helping often gave me the vibes that they are more passionate about making a quick buck from you. I don’t trust them or their recommendations. And then there are those who lack the passion to help because they hate their jobs. I’d rather avoid paying for their service because they won’t be motivated to go the extra mile to help in case anything goes wrong.
It’s been such a turnoff, and so, for some time, I’ve had much difficulties finding a shop I could trust.
In the end, I decided to try my friends’ shop (they’re a couple). I knew that they’re involved in their family’s optical shop, but I usually try to separate friends from business because it can make the friendship rather complicated. But due to the urgent need for a new pair, I figured it might be worthwhile to give it a shot. And so I did!
(At this point, I should state that this blog post is done out of my own free will, written because I was genuinely very impressed by the service and experience I had while I was there. I think good businesses should be praised and promoted. It’s hard to find good service these days.)
Their shop is called “Sincere Optics,” and it is located on the 3rd floor of Beauty World Shopping Centre (144 Upper Bukit Timah Road), a very quaint and sleepy shopping centre that still retains its original 70s look and feel. Initially, I thought that no one comes to this shopping centre because it looks so old and run down. But I was wrong. On weekends, it’s filled with lots of people, especially parents who drop their kids off for tuition or dance classes, as they sit outside to read the newspapers.
Sincere Optics is a family business that has been around for about three generations. In fact, they’ve been around for so long, that they continue to serve loyal customers and their families, up to three generations! Talk about personalised service! Imagine that! Up to three generations have come and gone to their shop for spectacles and contact lenses. Wow!
As this business is their life, the people running the place are very friendly, passionate, and sincere in what they do. They have their family reputation and brand to uphold, but above and beyond that, they take pride in their family tradition, and hold true to their values, especially that of being sincere (hence the name of their shop).
The impression I got is that they’ve developed quite a friendship with their customers. Not only do they remember the names of their regular customers, but they also remember the prescription of their disposable contact lenses as well. It takes a lot of care, concern and effort to be able to remember these things very well.
Looking back at my experience with them, this is a truly wonderful service which you don’t get with modern “corporate” businesses. They’re usually so cold and impersonal. This, however, was a truly personalised service made a lot better with the extra care and concern that they have.
These were all that I witnessed when I first walked in to visit their shop. I haven’t even been served by them yet!
When my friends, Hanes and Melissa, were done serving their customers, they came to me. Though we are friends, they nonetheless delivered a very professional service. You could see the teamwork in their family operation. After using the machine to check my eye, they handed me over to their colleague, a long-time family friend and staff, who then tested my eyesight. He was fast yet very meticulous. Within minutes, they’ve determined the new power of my eyes. Turns out the power remained the same, but my astigmatism doubled.
Then came the fun part of choosing a new frame. This time, I was open to the idea of change. After all, I had been wearing this old frame design for 10 years. As I mentioned earlier, I wore the previous pair for 6 years. Before that, I had another pair of the same design for 4 years. I was supposed to wear it for much longer, but I lost that pair while I was out at sea. It was my first time seeing huge waves at the beach in Australia, and so I wanted to see the waves up close in person. My friends advised me to remove my glasses before going into the sea, but I stubbornly refuse. My desire was fulfilled when I got hit in the face by a huge wave, only to discover that my glasses had fallen out, never to be found again. Oops!
So I picked out a new design and paid for the glasses. In less than a week, I got a call that my new glasses was ready. I was excited and rushed down to their shop to collect. I’ve wore this pair for two months, and I can definitely say that it has given me absolutely no problems at all.
Here’s my new glasses and my new look:
And here I am with the lovely couple who helped made this possible:
Anyway, if you are looking for opticians whom you can really trust, I strongly recommend them. It’s their life and their life’s work. These are people, craftsmen and craftswomen, who take their work seriously, and are truly passionate and sincere in what they do – qualities I find lacking in many optical shops today.
It’s been such a great experience. I am sure to come back here again, and even bring my future children here to make their specs, thus following other loyal customers who have been here faithfully for generations.
In Part 2 of my Year-End Review, I’d like to talk about the most important lesson that I learnt throughout the course of this year.
Some of you may know that I stopped blogging some time in the middle of 2013. That was the time when my previous blog grew very popular.
It attracted attention from certain groups of highly undesirable people. Several people (including acquaintances) reached out to me in the name of “developing” friendships (yeah, right…). They’d invite me out for lunch/dinner/tea or something so that we can “catch up,” when in reality, all they wanted was to benefit from the potential publicity that I could give. I don’t mind it if we did these kinds of things on a professional level (don’t mix personal matters with business). But it really disgusts me that people would deny it, and say that they are genuinely doing it for the sake of friendship. How do these people live with themselves? Are they content with such superficial friendships? Have they no shame in the way they conduct themselves?
It was the way these people did it, and the number of such people doing it that really overwhelmed me with great disgust. Maybe I just wasn’t mentally/emotionally prepared to handle so many disgusting and selfish people in such a short span of time.
Maybe… But the experience was so bad that one day I decided that I would stop blogging.
That was, by far, the worst decision of my life.
As I wrote this last sentence, I stopped typing for a while and thought deeply if I was exaggerating this claim. Looking back at every “bad” decision I made or regretted, I still would rank this as the single worst decision of my life ever. At least every other decision produced many learning insights.
When I stopped writing, I realised I lost a big part of myself. I seemed to have lost a deep connection of myself as the self-as-immersed-in-the-world. I realised that as soon as I stopped writing, I failed to give structure to my thoughts. They are scattered all over, disconnected one from the other.
Writing is very much like a meditative process for me. As I write, I focus on the idea developing word for word, and see it appear before my eyes on the screen. And every minute or so, I go back and review what has been written, and ponder deeply on it again and again. Does this make sense? Is it coherent? Could there have been a better way of expressing it?
This process of writing, forces me to meditate on the issue that I wish to discuss. It connects my deepest self – mind and heart – to the words on the screen. It links the thoughts in my head with the issues around me. Writing helps me to draw the connections between the scattered ideas in my mind, and when the dots are all connected, I gain insights into the matter.
This process cannot be replicated from speaking out loud, or simply from thinking to myself. A word, once uttered, is lost in the air. A thought, once entertained, fades away. I don’t have the words – critical feedback – appearing before my very eyes so that I can judge and evaluate each sentence, each word, in the context of its entirety.
What a big difference it makes to the way we think!
Not writing for months. That really affected me a lot. It got to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore, and so I decided to start a new blog – this blog – under a new name. A fresh start, so to speak. Unfortunately, as I had not been blogging when I transitioned from student to employee, I never developed a routine habit from the start for my writing activity. It has been difficult trying to write now that I’m working.
But I’m glad that I have those moments, every now and then, to retreat from life and work, to this little user interface on my screen, where I can pen my thoughts. These rare moments allow me to get in touch with myself and have a deeper understanding of moments and issues around me (and even of myself).
This idea of the importance in writing was further emphasized when a professor one day mentioned that the only way to develop one’s mind is to read a lot, discuss a lot, and most importantly, to write a lot. That resonated so deeply in me. I’ve been reading and discussing, but have been feeling a deep lack within for quite a while. Indeed, read, discuss and write. That is critical to one’s growth.
So yes, the big lesson of 2014 (at least for myself) is this: Don’t stop writing. Pick up your pen, or your keyboard, and write. Let the words flow, let your ideas develop. Don’t worry about perfection for perfection is an abstract ideal with no concrete parameters that will enable you to see that you have arrived at your destination. Just write, and write intimately so that you can hear yourself, and be deeply in touch with yourself.
Wow… Time really flies, perhaps faster than ever before. It’s hard to believe that a year has passed because I still have very vivid memories of all the events that happened in the past year (and even further back in time).
I’ll have to say that the year 2014 has been the most challenging year ever. Yet, despite all these challenges and occasional set-backs, I feel like I’ve grown a lot, and gained a lot of insights. And to top that off, I’ve met a lot of profoundly inspiring and amazing people, many of whom have restored my faith in humanity, and given me new lenses with which to see the world.
In order to make sense of 2014, I really should talk about it in the context of 2013, only because 2013 was the year that I made a few major decisions on what to do with my life, and it’s only in 2014 that many of these decisions began to unfold in interesting ways.
(I realised, having written so much, that it would be unrealistic to cram all my year-end reviews in a single post. So I’ll split it into several parts. Here’s Part 1…)
A Gap Year of Exploration
At the end of my undergraduate life, I decided to take a gap year from study, so that I could take a step back to explore my options and discover what I might want to do with my life.
I was quite burnt out in my final year of university, to the extent that I didn’t want to go through the ordeal of writing papers night after night. It seems that the experience was so bad that it has developed in me, a small yet powerful dread of writing, to the extent that I don’t enjoy writing very much. In the past, I could just sit in front of the keyboard and words would flow from my mind through my fingers onto the screen. But now, I’m always confronted with a dread and a kind of mental block. Words don’t flow so easily, and it takes me some time to settle down and calm my mind to overcome that psychological obstacle.
Much as I love academic philosophy, I always had this nagging feeling that I might not want to pursue this, or at least not in the way that I encountered it in my undergraduate life. I love the learning, I love reading, I love the process of growth, but I just do not enjoy the painful process of writing academic papers. (But as I slowly come to realise: three positives versus one negative, maybe that’s not too bad? There is no career that is 100% enjoyable, is there? Well, that’s something I still need to discover for myself)
So, instead of plunging myself into graduate school like many of my peers. I figured it would be better to try other things. But I had a lot of reluctance because I couldn’t seem to find a first job that really interested me. Moreover, I was quite afraid that I’d end up doing mindless, meaningless tasks, no more than a cog in the machine.
That all changed one day when I met a professor for lunch one day. (Some introduction to the professor:) This was Prof. Lo Yuet Keung from the NUS Chinese Department. I never thought I would sit in for a class taught in Mandarin, but I did back when I was in my first year (2009). It was the only Chinese philo module that was offered at that time. Though I didn’t understand Chinese very well, I was blown-away by what I could understand. But most of all, Prof. Lo made a very deep and profound impression on me. He was the first person I encountered whom you could call a junzi (君子 gentleman). I looked at him and told myself: this is the type of awesome person I’d like to be. I wanted to study Chinese philosophy the way he did, to be transformed by the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, as he was.
Anyway, many years later, I was very touched to find out from a friend that Prof. Lo remembers me (even though I never interacted with him during or after class in any of his modules). So I decided to drop him an e-mail, asking if it were possible to have lunch. And we did. It was by far, the most life-changing lunch appointment ever. I shared with him my hesitations on applying for a job, and told him that maybe I should take up a course or some certification class. In reply, he said something that changed my reality for the better:
Prof. Lo said: “Why bother paying money to learn a skill, when you can be paid to learn?” He went on to elaborate that I should perceive each and every job as a course in itself. Lessons and insights to acquire every step of the way (and you get paid as well – a double bonus!).
That changed the way I looked at the world, and it helped me with my search. With great confidence, I set out to apply. I eventually landed with a job at an electronics company, handling both the marketing of electronics and training the people who used it. It was a lot of fun.
Half a year later, I got a call from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They heard that I was looking for a research-related job, and they offered me a position to co-develop a course on Chinese philosophy with the Dean of the College, who was also quite a big name in the field of Chinese philosophy. It was an opportunity too good to miss. And I figured this would be ideal, as it might help me to decide whether or not I should pursue academia as a career.
I said yes, and it was by far the best decision of my life.
It’s been 10 months since I joined NTU. There’s been many challenges and difficult moments. But every step of the way has been meaningful, and it’s been great.
The greatest highlight of my time in NTU was to be involved in a project exploring ways to overcome the East-West barrier, how Chinese philosophy might help to enrich complexity thinking in the sciences (and social sciences), and how the two might just be related to each other. As part of this project, we organised two surveying workshops and invited several prominent researchers, directors of research institutes, and top public servants from around the world. It was amazing sitting in the midst of great and brilliant people.
This very experience gave me two very deep and profound realisations: (1) Firstly, it made me realise that my training in academic philosophy was insufficient in enabling me to comment on policy issues or matters of current affairs. I could listen and critique the ideas of others, but I’ve been unable to formulate anything positive on my part. This has been important to me as I’ve always aspired to be a public intellectual, using my philosophical skills to comment or critique pressing issues of society, or provide ideas, solutions or insights into certain matters. I always felt a sense of this inability, and in some ways, I’ve struggled with trying to write about such matters. But it was during those discussions that this inability became strongly apparent. Here I was, struggling with my training, knowledge, skills, and insights, yet what could I say? I could only speak theoretically (and naively even) about ideals, and I was unable to translate or connect it back to real events or issues. It was a challenge.
(2) Secondly, I came to the realisation that when you study philosophy along with several other disciplines, you will gain very interesting insights that you would not have acquired simply from the study of philosophy alone, or even from a mere interdisciplinary study of philosophy with one other discipline. No, it’s not just about one or two disciplines coming together. It is about bringing several disciplines together like a complete package (e.g. studying these disciplines together at the same time on a particular issue: philosophy, economics, politics, sociology, history). It is through this approach, that one could see certain issues very differently.
These two insights have changed my priorities and objectives. While I would still like to pursue a PhD in Philosophy, I would nonetheless like to branch out and study something else, maybe related to philosophy, but also related to other disciplines, as a good stepping stone in enabling me to address the two realisations above. I’m applying now for a Masters programme. But I’ll say more later once I’m done writing the proposal. What I can say now is that I’m going to take a rather unconventional route, but it seems that this choice will open more doors for me, and lead me to far greater growth.
With 2014 coming to an end, I realised I exceeded the time frame I gave myself when I took the gap year. I expected myself to have started graduate studies by now, or at least to move on to begin building my career.
For a while, I felt rather guilty, but recently, a very brilliant person commented that we all have cycles of activity and cycles of recuperation. Rather than to be worried about not being in the active cycle, I should instead focus (and not feel guilty) about my recuperation period, to recover and prepare myself intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally for all the great challenges and obstacles that will come my way once I begin graduate studies.
There should always be progress, but progress is to be made in the context of cycles of activity and recuperation. When such cycles are disrupted in the name of “progress”, it is not progress but haste. And it is in haste that we lose all insights and direction, and it is because of haste that we tire easily and burn ourselves much sooner than we expect.
In that case, I look forward to prepare myself slowly yet steadily for the changes to come next year.
With a new year starting, I think I now have a sense of what I’d like to pursue, at least over the next few years. In so many ways, I’m glad I didn’t simply rush into graduate school. I wouldn’t have had so many opportunities and life-changing insights. In 2013, I struggled so much trying to find some solution as to what to do next with my life, and thankfully, in 2014, I think I found the answer.
Recently, a philosophy professor mentioned that philosophy only advances when one engages in three things: reading, discussing, and writing.
This is so true.
Sadly, ever since I graduated, I rarely had the time to write. As you can see from this blog, I don’t write that often.
But the actual root of the problem is this: in order to have the time to write something significant and profound, one must also have the time to think, to contemplate on issues. I finally understand one aspect of what Aristotle meant when he wrote the Ethics. Aristotle said that the best life to live is the life of contemplation, where one is able to contemplate and marvel at the truth, goodness, and beauty of things. But such a life, as Aristotle acknowledged, is a luxury, and it can only be sustained if one is spared from chores and other matters of life that would rob one’s time and energy from fully engaging in contemplation. (Unfortunately, Aristotle’s solution to grant people that luxury of time and energy to contemplate, was to maintain a slave class in society do handle all those chores.) But anyway, yes, I see why he said that.
Working life is just so exhausting, with so many projects and deadlines. And it gets more hectic when one has other household matters to deal with. Gosh… Sometimes I feel like I’m just firefighting every single day. The alarm blares out loud in the morning, and then I rush to work, and a million and one things come up throughout the day. And before I know it, the day is over. Evening sets and I am fatigued, often too exhausted to do anything else but to function like a statue on the sofa, sometimes functioning like a plant, staying firmly rooted on the couch, while I “photosynthesize” before the television screen.
No time for contemplation!
Thankfully, I do get to enjoy a good hour in the morning to read as I commute to work, and fortunately, I have the company of philosophical friends with whom I get to discuss issues that I read or toyed with at random. So… Reading, checked. Discussing, checked. Writing… Nope!
I have been trying very hard to write. Every day I face a blank white screen with the text cursor flashing. What shall I write? What shall I write? Nothing flows from my mind. It is quite frustrating. Call it a writer’s block if you will. But I think the trouble comes precisely from the lack of contemplation. Not enough time to properly connect the ideas in my head into something coherent, and so the thoughts do not flow smoothly nor coherently enough to form something decent.
I need to contemplate.
Having said all these, here is my firm resolution: I resolve to set aside time each day to contemplate. It’s something I stopped doing, and it is something I definitely want to keep doing once again.
I love how Christmas is coming. Every year Starbucks will offer its special Christmas brew. I look forward to it every year.
A cup of toffee nut latte with its fragrant smell and taste brings me so much happiness. And especially on a cold rainy day, this drink is the perfect beverage to compliment the lovely chilly weather. MMMmmm…
I’ll be honest and say that I don’t particularly like the drink so much anymore now. I guess as one grows with age, one outgrows one’s liking for sweet drinks.
So why do I still drink it? Mainly, for the nostalgia, but also as an annual reminder for what it now represents.
This was the drink that has accompanied me for so many cold and rainy nights back in my undergraduate days, where at the end of the semester (well, at the end of every Semester 1) I’d spend several, almost-consecutive nights in a row, working overnight on campus to write papers after papers, until the sun rose at about 6+am (no kidding!).
It was the drink that in many ways, stayed beside me, sitting with me, keeping me up, keeping me going. The fact that it was a seasonal brew made it all the more special. It also, in a way, gave me something to look forward to at the time when assignments are aplenty, and where stress is high.
Now that I have graduated and don’t need undergo such academic toiling, this drink brings me lovely memories of the those times where I stayed up to write papers. While in some ways, I hated the experience, I still loved it for the kind of peace and quiet that I enjoyed. There’s something really wonderful about sitting in a dim room in the middle of the night, with a small desk lamp over your head, with another one or two other students working in the study room. Maybe it’s the combination of the lack of sleep, stress and the caffeine, but the experience of solitude as you think and write is magical… But I digress.
More significantly, this drink stands as a symbol of the silent companion who stands by your side, cheering you, giving you (mental) strength to keep going, to keep thinking, to keep writing. That you’re never alone even as you’re writing at 4am in the middle of the night, where everyone else is asleep.
That companion, who transforms and gives new meaning and understanding to the experience of the toil and suffering of work; transforming toil into toil-AND-pleasure, adding an element of joy – sips of joy full of flavour, stimulating your senses as if setting off a series of fireworks in your mind – with every small sip I took, as I wrote my papers with frustration.
Toil transformed into toil-and-pleasure.
It is a hopeful drink. It serves as a reminder of those moments, and how I overcame those moments year after year till graduation, with this simple seasonal drink.
To drink it once again, today, on a cold rainy day in December. A timely reminder. A comforting thought. A heartening sip.
Here’s a random thought that came to my mind: why aren’t there stories written in the second person narrative? (i.e. stories involving, “you”).
I’ve not seen any literature out there are employs this mode of writing.
If you think about it, it can be – and in fact, it is! – very exciting. When you read or tell stories from a second person narrative, it’s as if the subjective phenomenal experience of life unfolds before YOU! Yes, even if it is very very mundane, the fact that life unfolds before your very mind is an intriguing experience. It seems that the mind works very differently when you read in the second person.
To demonstrate this, I shall recount a brief description of the start of my day in the second person narrative: (Ready? Let’s go!)
You regain consciousness. You experience darkness. You hear a continuous stream of sound. As you slowly gain more consciousness, you begin to perceive it as classical music. Ah, you remember it as the sound of your radio alarm.
You open your eyes. You experience the fading of darkness into light. You see the sun shining through the curtains. Your body aches. You experience the sour, aching sensation in your shoulders and your calves. You wonder why they are aching, and you slowly remember that last night, you were busy doing some household chores.
You reach for your phone to look at the time. You press the button on the side of your phone: the time now is 6.55am. You try to get up but your aching body doesn’t agree with your decision. You continue to lie in bed. You close your eyes and continue listening to the music.
You’re too tired to think. Nothing goes through your mind. You feel as if you are going back to sleep. You hear a voice. You awake once more and pay close attention to the voice. You realise the radio station is now broadcasting the news. You continue lying in bed with your eyes open. After a while, you try again to get up. You succeed. Now, you are sitting upright on your bed.
You turn to the right and you stand up. You feel the coldness of the floor. You stretch your arms and your legs, and you begin walking towards the toilet. You stand by the urinal and pee. You feel a sense of relief. Now, you turn to the tap, and turn on the water. You feel the cold water flowing onto your hands. You stretch out your hands, you reach for the soap, you lather it up, and put the soap back. You rinse your hands. Now, you reach for the toothbrush and the toothpaste. You brush your teeth…
Well, you get the picture.
Try reading the passage above in an excited tone. It makes for a very thrilling story.
Anyway, yes, we should have more stories like this. It’s very intriguing. Life unfolds before your very eyes.
Pretty cool, isn’t it? Why don’t you try narrating a story in the second person narrative?
Well, ok, it’s October now. Gosh… I actually can’t believe I haven’t been blogging for slightly more than two months. It felt like eternity.
I’ve been so ridiculously crazy over the past two months. Somehow, when the semester began, I found myself flooded with a never-ending stream of activity. It was exhausting and stressful, but it was amazing.
The past 2 months have so far, been the greatest high points of my life and career here in NTU.
I never would have imagined so many amazing events to have happened in two months, but it did! And now that the high tide of activity has subsided, I can breathe a little easy now, recollect, and can’t help but feel like the past two months were nothing but the most amazing beautiful dream that I’ve had.
So, what did I do?
I spent the entire month of August writing a paper for an academic journal. It’s my first paper for an academic journal. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s not the previous post (if you’re wondering, the previous one had too many problems and too little textual material available to make a solid case; I had to write a different paper). In many ways, it was reminiscent of my undergraduate days. In some ways, it was nostalgic.
Anyway, the editor got back to me. The reviewers’ comments were: It was very very interesting. They loved it! But, major revisions required. Oh dear…
In addition, I participated in a small workshop that involved several directors of research centres around the world (including the UN), discussing issues about East-West boundaries, and problems in science and policy making. It was inspiring to sit in a room filled with one of the most brilliant minds in the world. I want to be like them! They spoke elegantly, conducted themselves in the most gentlemanly manner, and most of all, they were full of brilliant ideas and insights.
Those were the mast amazing 3 days of my life. I grew a lot and I came out a changed person.
Not too long after that, in September, I had to fly to China alone, on my own, for the very first time in my life. I made two trips, each trip lasting a week. If you did not know, I’m involved in the production of a massively open online course (MOOC) in Confucian Philosophy. A MOOC is an online course complete with video lessons, online readings, and online quizzes and assignments, which can earn you a lovely certificate by the administering university.
I won’t be the one conducting the lessons in front of the camera. Rather, I’m the one who does all the behind-the-scenes stuff, such as going to China to get government clearance to film lessons in historical sites in China, among many other matters.
Anyway, the birthday of Confucius was coming up, and we wanted to film the Grand Ritual to Confucius at the Confucius Temple in his hometown in Qufu. But that’s not the only thing we wanted to film. There’s a lot more, but I won’t spoil it for you – at least not now. Anyway, all these things required administrative clearance from the Chinese authorities. It was a learning experience, as China has a very different work culture.
But perhaps the greatest eye opener and learning experience was to experience Confucianism as it was lived and practiced by the people of Qufu. Perhaps, it’s because Qufu is the hometown of Confucius that Confucianism is strongly practised till this day (I can’t make the claim for all of China since I’ve only been to this small town). Imagine this: everywhere you go, you are met with the most sincere, authentic, and friendly people ever. Doesn’t matter where I go (and no, it wasn’t special treatment because I was a foreigner, they all thought I was a local – they were very surprised when I told them I was from Singapore). Human affection and close relationships are the number one priority. Everything that is done is done for the sake of deepening the friendship. Even if you are doing business or working, the close friendship is of utmost importance.
It is no wonder the first line in the Analects is so strongly featured in Qufu:
For a friend to come [visit you] from afar, is this not a great joy?
I guess you could say I returned from China a convert, a strong fervent believer of the teachings of Confucius.
It was so refreshing to meet sincere people interested more in friendships than in being able to suck something out from you. It’s a tragedy because nowadays in Singapore, there are just far too many pretentious people who lie that they’re interested in being friends, but actually want to gain something from the friendship. (Seriously, I’m ok if you just say point blank that you want something from me – I don’t like this kind of hypocritical bullshit where you can’t voice your true intentions, but have to keep going around in circles.)
That was a wonderful experience.
Anyway, the second week, my professor and the filming crew came down to China, and it was, for me, a really stressful week as I encountered administrative hiccups here and there. The Chinese authorities do not operate as efficiently as the Singapore civil service. So I had to run around China, making phone calls to various offices just to find alternative solutions or to fix the problem. It was the most stressful week. On the bright side, I was able to pamper myself with delicious foods while I was there, so I was quite happy.
I just came back from China last week, and spent the past couple of days recuperating from the two months of madness. I think I’m now properly rested, which means I should be able to work very efficiently and I can return to blogging regularly. Yay!
The other day, as I was walking around the campus in NTU (I was lost, actually), I discovered a headless statue, standing on one of the upper floors just behind the railings, as if it were vigilantly watching over the entire campus. (Yeah, I know, it has no head, so how does it see? Let’s just be creative for a minute.)
I decided to use my lunch time today to check it out.
I had many questions about this statue: What could this statue be? Who left it there? It’s quite an odd place for a statue anyway. Did someone vandalise the statue and cut of its head?
I made my way down to Block N3.1, and when I got to the floor (Basement 3 – yes, the flooring system here is stupid) where the statue was, I was pleasantly surprised to find a small little garden!
And there it was, the statue, standing gloriously under the noonday sun!
It turns out that there’s a plaque which describes this statue:
As it turns out, this headless angel is the “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” otherwise known as the ancient Greek goddess, Nike! (Just do it!) Nike is Greek for “victory.”
It’s an exact replica of the original statue that was excavated and found to have the head and hands missing.
I did some research online and found that the retired Professor Cheung is quite an artist! He paints and sculpts! Wow! Though he didn’t sculpt the statue, he managed to get NTU, and the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering to use a hydraulic lifting crane to place it on as high a location as possible.
It would have been really cool if the statue was placed on a much higher, more visible location.
Where is it standing at the moment is kinda hidden, and unknown to many who study and work on campus.
Yet oddly enough, this current location adds an air of mystery and wonder to the statue: it is a weird juxtaposition of an ancient Greek goddess standing honourably between humanity and his technological artifices, and nature with her lush greenery and deep blue skies.
Nike, the goddess stands in harmony at the centre of these two poles and watches over humanity and nature in silence. To those who learn to conquer and rise victorious over their own weaknesses and obstacles, without destroying the delicate balance of humanity and nature, she looks kindly upon them who put up the good fight, and blesses them with her wreath of victory.
Wow… It’s been about 8 months since I last blogged! Unbelievable! And it’s amazing how many things have happened in my life in just 8 months!
I do apologise for not posting anything for the last 8 months.
I had to undergo the biggest lifestyle change in my life that has made it very difficult for me to blog.
What was it that kept me away from the keyboard? WORK!
At the end of the day, when you’re just so dead and tired from a long day, the last thing you want to do is think!
During my first month of work, I would come back home exhausted and do nothing but watch mindless cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants and laugh like a madman. The last thing I wanted to do was to watch a show that was intellectually stimulating. Seriously… Who in the right mind has the energy for that after a long tiring day?
I have new found respect for parents: they spend the entire day working like crazy, they come back – probably as exhausted as me, if not worse – and then, they still have children to look after. How do they do it? Where do they get the energy for that?!
I’ve gotten the hang of things, and so my evening activities are not simply about watching mindless cartoons. But I’m still usually too tired to do very much.
Well, it’s been 8 months! But I guess I have enough guilt festering within me to want to make a change and do something about my blog.
So, here’s the summary of my life over the past 8 months:
In Sep 2013, I got a job as a Marketing Communications Specialist for an electronics company! Haha yes! A philosopher decided to go into electronics. Well, if anything, it was to prove (on my CV at least) that as a philosopher, I’m capable of many things. And at least, to have a try at electronics (something I gave up in university in favour of Philosophy). It was pretty fun. I got to meet many inspiring people along the way, and I got to design a lot of things! Oh, I even got featured on CNET! It was good fun!
In Jan 2014, I proposed to The Girlfriend, and she said… YES! So The Girlfriend has now become… THE FIANCEE! We plan to get married some time in 2015. (So exciting!)
In Feb 2014, I got a job offer to work as a full-time researcher in classical Chinese philosophy at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). It’s a very rare opportunity! An offer that I couldn’t miss! In fact, working in an electronics company, though electronics was something of a hobby for me, made me realise that I had a huge thirst for philosophy and I needed something with an intellectual challenge. So that strengthened my resolution all the more to make the switch back to philosophy.
So here I am! I won’t exactly say that life has been a bed of roses, but it’s been interesting and certainly most exciting trying out all kinds of stuff.
Of course, I’ll do my best to blog about all the wonderful things in my life – hopefully on a once in two days, or at least once a week basis.
After four exhausting years of toil, of literally blood (having gone to the hospital thrice and getting needles injected all over my body), sweat, and coffee, I’ve survived university and graduated!
Well, as some of you know, I’ve been pretty busy finishing my Honours Thesis in my last and final semester.
My thesis was entitled, “Notions of Harmony in Classical Chinese Thought.” In it, I set out to investigate and reconstruct all the various notions of harmony that could be found in the Analects, Mozi, Daodejing, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and the Xunzi. The problem with much of the scholarship on harmony is that scholars have often assumed harmony to be more or less the same idea across thinkers throughout Chinese history. My project was to demonstrate that this is not so. (If you are interested in reading it, please leave me a comment, and I’ll e-mail it to you!)
The final week before the Thesis submission deadline was extremely stressful as I was up almost every night until 3-4am trying my best to edit and polish up the paper.
Friday, 26 April 2013 was the thesis submission deadline and thankfully, I managed to finish my thesis by then.
That day was, for me, a very momentous occasion – it was the big day where after one entire year of researching and writing, the time has finally come for the paper to be printed and submitted! Wow… You know, I never thought it would ever have been possible to write such a lengthy paper. My thesis was approximately 12000 words, and it consisted of 42 pages! That’s right! 42! The number, the answer to life, the universe, and everything!
Somehow, the entire day felt like a momentous victory! I met a friend at the library who was more than happy to help me photograph the momentous occasion while I printed my thesis:
It was somewhat unfortunate that I didn’t have the time to bind my paper into a hardcover book (which was the tradition for submitting theses). Oh well, I didn’t have the luxury of time to do it. But that’s ok. Hardcover isn’t a submission requirement.
With the Honours Thesis out of the way, I felt a huge burden lifted from my shoulders.
But I could not heave a sigh of relief yet as I still had exams to study and sit for. And so, after a day of rest, it was back to the books.
Unfortunately, the exams didn’t end on a very happy note. My last exam was an engineering module (for the life of me, I still don’t understand why on earth did I decide to do an engineering module). It wasn’t an introductory module either (I really have no idea why I put myself through such pains). Anyway, it was the last exam of my undergraduate life, but the paper was so difficult, I was faced with a very real possibility of failing the paper. I counted the marks of the questions where I think I would have gotten right, and I only had just enough to pass. If bell-curve moderation was not in my favour, there was the very very real possibility that I would have failed this paper, and worse of all, I would have to repeat a semester. Gosh… It was a very horrible feeling to have while walking out of the exam hall.
But no matter. A few days after that traumatic experience of the final exam, I was out of the country for a holiday to Penang (I’ll write more about it later). Then it was off to Kuala Lumpur to run some errands and enjoy a bit of holiday by the side. The Girlfriend’s grandmother came down to Singapore some time back and discovered the wonders of the Internet, specifically YouTube, and she wanted to have this amazing Internet in her home. So I volunteered to go down to KL and help buy and set up a computer and an Internet connection. And after Kuala Lumpur, I was off to Bangkok. These three places were amazing in their own way, and I think I’ve grown and learnt a lot while I was there. (But I’ll keep all those thoughts for another blog entry here).
Let me just fast forward by about 2 months to the last seven days leading up to my graduation ceremony.
Gosh… It was quite an exciting week! I was given the opportunity to present a section of my Honours Thesis at an international philosophy conference. It was the 2013 Joint Meeting of the Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (SACP) and the Australasia Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (ASACP).
Not only was I busy helping out with some of the logistic matters, I was also rushing to edit and present my paper for the event. It had been two months since I last wrote papers. It felt good to be writing a paper once again. I had a cup of coffee by my side, soft piano music playing in the background, and I was all ready to write my paper all the way into the midst of the night. So for three consecutive nights, there I was sitting before my computer, typing away until 3am. It was tiring, but it felt so good to be engaging in this paper writing ritual. There’s something so comforting and wonderful about the experience.
Monday, 8 July 2013. At last, it was the day of the Conference. I had to present my paper on the first day, in the afternoon before many academics, some of whom were really really BIG names in the area of Chinese Philosophy. It was intimidating, but nonetheless, a huge honour!
The paper I presented was entitled, “Reconciling Culinary and Musical Models in Classical Chinese Thought.” There’s been some sort of academic debate where there is disagreement as to whether the culinary and musical models of harmony have merged into a single unified notion or remain as two separate models in classical Chinese thought. In my paper, I attempted to present a new way of looking at the relation of the two models and how they can be reconciled together into a single theory despite remaining as two separate yet distinct models.
It turns out that my paper presentation was a huge success! Everybody present enjoyed it and they found the contents very interesting!
The biggest WOW experienced I had was during another panel’s Q&A session. One professor (Prof. Alan K. L. Chan), who is quite a big name in Chinese philosophy replied my question saying that he actually had read my Honours Thesis during his flight to Singapore, and he found it (to quote him), “an enjoyable read” and that it “was very interesting.” Immediately after that, the people sitting on my left and right turned to me asking if I could send my thesis to them.
WOW! If writing an Honours Thesis is meant to make one feel honoured, I think it’s working! I felt so honoured at that moment. Wow…
Anyway, the conference was really amazing. I had the chance to meet so many amazing people. It was also pretty amazing to finally see the faces of people whose books and papers I’ve read and cited in my papers. To be standing amongst the greats in Chinese philosophy from around the world… Woah… All I can say is that it was very inspiring and really awesome to see a bunch of people who are just so passionate about what they’re doing. It was lovely.
The conference went on for three whole days! On the fourth day, Thursday, 11 July 2013, it was finally the day of my graduation ceremony!
Four years of hard work has finally led up to this epic moment:
Let me now present you with the fruit of my labour – the fruit that took four years of coffee, blood and sweat (no tears thankfully):
You know, it’s crazy… Ever since my first year in university, I never thought that it would be possible for me – a person who came from the science stream and who initially majored in Computer Engineering – to be able to get this.
But with lots of hard work and the encouragement and support from The Girlfriend, the wonderful professors in the NUS Philosophy Department, and all my other friends both online and offline, I was able to endure and persevere all the way till the end.
So what’s next? Well, if you asked me this question two months ago, I would have only been able to shrug my shoulders and sheepishly reply, “I don’t know.”
But since last month, I’ve slowly come to realise that my true calling is in academia, and especially in (Chinese) Philosophy. In the past months, I’ve been looking through job ads after job ads, and I was never really interested in what was on offer. The greatest tragedy perhaps, was the constant thought of never having to pursue philosophy once again. Every time I contemplated that thought, a part of me dies. It was painful.
It was only at a recent farewell party for a professor that I realised that I should do whatever I can to pursue philosophy. There and then, we were having a fantastic time discussing philosophical issues. My heart was on fire once again after quite a period of dreaded boredom. The pursuit of wisdom has left me thirsting yet for more.
The pursuit of philosophy is an arduous process. It is mentally and even physically exhausting staying up late just to research, think, and write. But it is a process that I value so greatly. These four years of my philosophical pursuits have transformed me in many wonderful ways. And I wish to continue to be transformed, and shaped by the pursuit of wisdom, just as how it has transformed and shaped the professors in the Philosophy Department here in NUS. I’ve interacted with many of them, and all I can say is that I feel like I’ve been interacting with wise exemplary sages.
I want to be as wise and awe-inspiring as they are, and continue to pass on this most splendid and awesome tradition.
But in the mean time, I’ll take a year’s break from study to work. I intend to focus on publishing at least one paper in an academic journal. That would help me get a better chance of securing full funding for a PhD scholarship. And by next year, I shall be off to some other country to pursue my studies in Chinese Philosophy.
It looks like I have a really exciting life waiting for me in the years to come. I look forward to that as I take life one step at a time.
I’ve not been updating this blog for a while. I’ve been quite busy writing my Honours dissertation.
I’m just happy to say that it’s almost done. All it needs is several rounds of editing before I can declare it as the greatest accomplishment of my life.
Anyway, there’s four days left before the submission deadline. I hope to get over and done with this as soon as possible because I still have exams to study for.
Here are the books that are currently stacked up next to me:
This is only half of my final bibliography. The rest of the books are in the library. I don’t drive, so it’s very difficult to carry huge heaps of books in my bag pack.
The dissertation is currently 45 pages long. My current word count is 13,147 words. I need to keep everything below 12,000 words. That’s the word limit. It’s a strict limit, so I don’t have the luxury of exceeding it a little. I’ll need to find some ways to shave off those excess words without affecting the presentation of the paper.
Yup! That’s how life has been thus far. I’m crossing my fingers, hoping that I can finish this by tonight.
Here’s something interesting about making decisions – at the heart of the decisions we make, there’s some level of irrationality going on.
The best way to illustrate this is by using the example of Newcomb’s Paradox.
Imagine this scenario: There are two boxes – one transparent, and one opaque. You’re supposed to choose either (1) the opaque box OR (2) both boxes. The transparent box contains $1000. But we do not know how much money is inside the opaque box. Now, there’s this magical person known as The Predictor. The Predictor can predict with a 99.999999…% accuracy on which choice you’ll make. If he predicts that you’ll choose option (1), the opaque box, then he’ll put $1million in it, and you’ll get $1million. If he predicts that you’ll go with option (2), of taking both boxes, he’ll put nothing inside, and you’ll get only $1000 at the end of the day.
So will you choose to take only the opaque box or would you choose to take both boxes?
Chances are, if you chose to take the opaque box only, you’d think that people who chose to take both boxes are crazy. Since you’ll probably get $1million, why bother with two boxes where it’s highly likely that you’ll get only $1000?
Yet, those who think that it is perfectly rational to choose both boxes will think that it’s crazy to choose only one box and risk losing all of one’s money.
So who’s crazy and who’s rational?
Well, before I say anything more, I think it’s very very interesting that a study was conducted and people are generally split 50-50 over which option to choose from.
So back to the question: who’s crazy and who’s rational?
Well, if you chose to take only the opaque box, chances are you made your decision using the Expected Value principle. The expected value is calculated using the formula:
Expected Value = Expected Gain x Probability of Acquiring It
Using the Expected Value principle, there are four possible scenarios:
Choose opaque box & $1m put: Get $1m. Expected value = $1m * 99.99…% = 999,999.999…
Choose opaque box & nothing put: Get $0. Expected value = $0 * 0.000001 % = 0
Choose both boxes & $1m put: Get $1.001m. Expected value = $1.001m * 0.0000001% = 0.00000001
Choose both boxes & nothing put: $1000. Expected value = $1000 * 99.99…% = 999.9999…
From the above four scenarios, only scenario one yields the highest expected value. And so, it makes sense, from this point of view, that one ought to choose only the opaque box. This decision is well justified.
Yet, on the other hand, those who choose both boxes have a well-justified decision too. They are operating on the Dominance principle, or what I like to call, the kiasu (Singlish for ‘scared to lose’) principle.
Anyway, the Dominance principle weighs which decision will yield the best result in all possible cases.
There are four possible scenarios that we can construct:
Choose 2 boxes & no money put: Get $1000 (Probability 100%)
Choose 2 boxes & put $1m: Get $1.001million (Probability 0.0001%)
Choose opaque box & no money put: Get $0, i.e. LOSE $1000 (Probability 0.0001%)
Choose opaque box & money put in: Get $1.001million (Probability 99.999%)
In which case, choosing both boxes will yield the best result since:
Choose both boxes and $1m put, get $1.001m > Choose only opaque box, get $1m
Choose both boxes and nothing put, get $1000 > Choosing only opaque box, lose $1000.
From this perspective, it makes sense to choose two boxes instead of one.
The Newcomb’s Paradox is a paradox because in such a situation, people arrive at two different solutions, each justified with a different principle.
But what justifies the use of one principle? Or what justifies choosing one principle over the other?
At this level, reason begins to break down. The two principles above give weight and value to two completely different things. One places value on the expected value while the other places value on which choice yields the best outcomes in every foreseeable case.
But how do you justify which should be given greater weight? In most cases, attempts to justify one value over another already assumes the superiority (or inferiority) of one value. So that wouldn’t be a fair assessment. For example, if I say that it’s better to favour the best outcome in all possible cases rather than the expected value because I will always get some money at the end regardless of the outcome, then I’m implicitly already giving greater value to ‘the best outcome in all possible cases’.
For this reason, a sincere neutral assessment will not be able to answer which principle to choose. That’s why people are divided 50-50 over this issue. We can’t rationally justify why we ought to value one thing over the other.
This is where some level of “irrationality” comes in. We choose one principle over the other for non-rational reasons – gut feeling, our upbringing, our cultural/intellectual context, etc. These things shape us to develop a positive bias for one, and a negative bias for the other.
On the broader picture, we all value different things for different reasons. And even if we can agree that we value a set of things, people rank the things they value differently. I value quiet walks, while others may value loud parties. I value philosophical discussions more than discussions on sports; while others may value discussions on sports more than philosophical discussions.
We may judge others as being worse than us for valuing some things more than we do. But, as I have mentioned earlier, such judgements are unfair judgements because we are judging them from the perspective of our own order of value. And yet, there really is no means for us to justify why one thing should be valued more than another without already assuming the superiority of one value. Why? Because of some level of irrationality going on in the background that makes us favour one value more than another.
So, the next time someone seems to have made an apparently irrational decision, if that person is capable of rationally justifying the decision – even if you still do not agree with it – that’s because we’re making our decisions while placing value on different things or value something more than others, and there’s really no way of properly justifying why we choose to value one thing over another because of non-rational factors.