Sunday, December 31, 2006

My 2007 New Year Resolutions

Today is the eve of the New Year, which means the time left to make one’s New Year resolutions is fast depleting. I’ve never been one to set New Year resolutions, believing in making adjustments as I course along, basically operating in the reactive mode.

The only goals I set are career-related, and that also because it is a job requirement, stating in no uncertain terms the achievements, quantifiable and measurable ones, by year end, so that my job performance can be judged, presumably objectively, as a yardstick for rewards. For example, learning to use new software, or applying software in a new project setting, or earning additional professional certifications.

A pre-requisite for making meaningful New Year resolutions is stock taking of past events leading to the identification of shortcomings to be addressed in the new year. One can also persist with what has worked in the past year, and continue with the same, but perhaps with gusto, conviction, or even bravado.

Since my career-related goals are a matter between me and my boss, here I would like to share my personal goals for the year 2007, having subjected them to the criteria cited above and in no particular order:
  • In addition to continuing to be a non-smoker, I also resolve to abstain from the company of smokers, having read that inhaling secondary smoke can be as detrimental to one’s health as the smoker.

  • I resolve to continue as a non-alcoholic consumer, but would also enjoy the company of social drinkers as I believe that taken in moderation, wine can be beneficial to health. At the same time, it could help promote collegiality by helping to “loosen the tongue” somewhat, so to speak. In this respect, my abstinence is entirely medically driven.

  • I resolve to continue as a conscientious blogger who does not fabricate (maybe stretch the imagination a bit), who would give credit where it’s due, and who would observe all other canons of netiquette not covered in the first two (read here).

  • I resolve to continue to contribute to the relief and wellbeing of the needy through donation the best way I can, having taking cognizance of the fact that not all charities are the same (read here).

  • I resolve to continue to photo-shoot scenery and situation as and when they present themselves to add them to my collection and to share them through my blogs whenever feasible and where they enhance the theme under discussion, with proper attribution. (Roosting fowls alongside a river bank during a visit to the Berkeley Plantations, Virginia on 20 June 2005).

  • I resolve to continue to be the husband worthy of my wife’s doting attention, the father worthy of my children’s respect and pride, both overtly and covertly, and a friend worthy of those who take the trouble to befriend me.

  • I resolve to continue to learn the wise ways of the Buddha as my guiding light in life, to continue to participate in release life activities, and to continue to translate Buddhist verses/teaching in Chinese to English so that others could also benefit from the Buddha teaching in the pursuit of tranquility and serenity in life (Bird feeding during one of the Year 2006 release life activities at Clearwater Beach with the pier in the backgroud).

  • I resolve to be more environment conscious in my orientation that includes sound use of natural resources within my disposal, and not to take the everyday amenities spawned by technological advances for granted (flamingoes seemingly on stilts taken inside the Busch Garden Theme Park on 28 Dec 2006).

  • I resolve to continue to follow a healthy diet comprising a large portion of vegetables supplemented with the requisite mix of brown rice, whole grain bread, tofu, chicken, fish, and plenty of water. That means home-cooked meals prepared with extra-culinary care by my wife.

  • I resolve to do more brisk walking during work, and more promenading along the Bayshore Boulevard after work with my wife.

  • I resolve to continue to maintain an even keel for both work and life, which means dissipating work pressure during work hours and leading a stress-free life, at least for a much greater proportion of the time (I’m a realist too).

  • And last but not the least, I resolve to both pray for and help in my own little way to bring about a peaceful world where religious strife will be replaced by inter-faith harmony, and where global threats will be addressed in concert.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Development Pressure and Environmental Sustainability: Mutually Exclusive?

As if on cue, the recent earthquake off the southwest coast of Taiwan triggered off a tsunami warning that may have been reminiscent of the 2004 Boxer Day tsunami rampage on its second anniversary. Fortunately it was not to be. Different setting (Indian Ocean versus Pacific Ocean), different consequences (human carnage versus frayed nerves).

But the earthquake did inflict untold damages to the fiber optic connectivity in that part of the world, disrupting both telecommunication and Internet traffic.

So while the 2004 December Tsunami was stymied by the absence of tele-communication, and hence, forewarning, this time around an earthquake of much smaller scale has exposed the vulnerability of the global tele-communication system, despite the many built-in system redundancy.

Earlier on, another natural calamity has also laid bare the inadequacy of human ingenuity, or rather, the primacy of human-centered development, in coping with Nature’s wrath. I’m referring to the unprecedented flood that wreaked havoc in the southern States of Peninsular Malaysia. It was much easier to explain away the occurrence as a meteorological aberration whereby the convergence of the air streams leading to the deluge occurred much further to the south compared to previous years when the northern States were blanketed, and where the people on the ground there have had a history of dealing with the surplus of runoff, and hence, are imbued with a kind of crisis mentality, which is perhaps absent from the psyche of their more southerly brethren, at the advent of the Northeast Monsoon.

From news coverage, it became patently clear that those affected, and those charged with the emergency management, were ill-prepared to handle the fast rising flood water, and the human misery that has come to characterize the 2005 Katrina devastation once again unfolded before our very eyes. At the same time, heroic acts of saving human lives, and marshalling aid to reach the victims, were reported.

Underneath this “act of God”, to which those responsible for on-the-ground disaster preparedness and assistance are wont to ascribe the "blame", lies perhaps the crux of the matter: development at the expense of environmental sustainability.

All natural systems have a carrying capacity to cope with the elements, perhaps the simplest of which is one depicted by the Water Cycle, or technically, the Hydrological Cycle (image courtesy of USGS). Water vapor in the sky forms clouds, which then falls to the ground as rain at some point. The overland flow that results is termed the runoff, which collects in drains and streams that flow by gravity to lower elevations. Streams meet to form rivers that debauch into the ocean. Some of the rain percolates into the ground where it is not paved, and collects in aquifers as underground storage, while other collects in inland lakes and reservoirs. Water then returns to the atmosphere through direct evaporation from the water surface and indirectly by transpiration via leaves in plants through uptake from the soil. And the cycle repeats.

Now, any bare earth surface that is built up, be it the footprint of a building, paved surface for roads, and hard-standing for car parks and walkways, reduced ground infiltration of falling rain that translates into enhanced surface runoff. If this increased water discharge overwhelms the flow capacity of the drainage infrastructure such as surface drains, underground conduits, and storage reservoirs, then flood ensues, causing property damage and at its extreme, loss of life.

As an economic imperative simply because funds are finite, the drainage infrastructure is never designed to cater for the largest possible rainfall event and the ensuing flow discharge based on the projected land use of a watershed, say, for the next 30 years. So if the development of the watershed, i.e., conversion of natural green area into built-up areas that are impervious to flow, outstrips the projected land use change, then one can well imagine that the drains will overflow and flood the adjacent build-up areas.

So, in a nutshell, this is the continuing tussle between development ostensibly to serve the need of humankind, and maintaining the environment in a condition that is as naturally pristine as possible. And the balance will tip depending on the degree to which the powers that be embrace environmental sustainability in their stewardship of natural resources of which land space is by far the most pivotal.

Concepts and innovations such as low-density development, environment-friendly approaches, and bio-engineering measures have been introduced to soften the development impacts. However, as past events are a testimony, there continues to be a mismatch, a chasm really if you will, between the development lobby and the environment, which is treated almost as an after-thought.

Let’s hope this will change, lest the human misery continue to hog the headlines, in ever increasing frequency.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

"The Green Environment" and "Them" instead of "You"

Putting a damper on the ensuing euphoria from the Time’s Person of the Year honor are two online articles, in addition to my puny voice of dissent here .

The first one felt that nature has eclipsed the most important species on earth, Homo Sapiens, in terms of changes sustained and the change implications, and thus should merit precedence over the latter, even though the very nature of the change affecting nature could be anthropogenic in origin.

A renowned NewYork Times columnist and the author of the popular book, The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman put up a convincing case that Time would have run the headline "Color of the Year", if he were the editor calling the shots. And he would have bestowed that honor to the color GREEN.

The article, And the Color of the Year Is ... by Thomas Friedman, appears on the Dec 22, 2006 issue of New York Times, but I saw the online version here. But before that, I first read about it in print in today’s Tampa Tribune, under “Other Views” (p. 13 of Nation/World), with a slightly altered title, And the Color of the Year Is … GREEN.

Corporations are now embracing green policies where it matters most: profits. But it’s not only the share-holders who benefit, the beneficiary includes the customers, and the environment too. Citing the case of WalMart, Friedman writes, “…But the world’s biggest retailer lately has gotten the green bug — in part to improve its image, but also because it has found that being more energy efficient is highly profitable for itself and its customers.”

How? A wide range of innovations really, though some are still at the experimental stage: alternative building materials, lighting, power systems and designs (e.g., , “big wind turbine in the parking lot”, “solar panels on key walls”, “the cooking oil from fried chicken that is recycled in its bio-boiler and heats the store in winter”, and “the shift to L.E.D lights in all exterior signs and grocery and freezer cases”.

He concluded his article with a dire caution that “the tipping point on climate change and species loss is also fast approaching, if it’s not already here. There’s no time to lose.”

I hope that Friedman’s clarion call for action could serve notice and rally bipartisan action in the US Congress where others, such as the movie "An Inconvenient Truth" by Al Gore, have not seemed to garner substantial support for change.

The second article is more direct, and argues that the honor should have gone to “them”. Written by Dante Chinni, the article is entitled “'They,' more than 'You,' are revolutionizing media” and appears in the Dec 26, 2006 issue of the Christian Science Monitor.

Chinni’s premises echo my view, though his was framed with much more citations. Not mincing his words, Chinni writes that Time’s premise is flawed and claimed “that only a small percentage of Americans are really contributing to the Web in meaningful ways - or even at all.”

Of the small percentage of people who actually blog, tens of thousands post to blogs that have an average daily viewership of ... one. In other words, the scope of the Web's populist revolution shouldn't be overstated; it should be understood,” Chinni continues rationally. And he ends with a sober reminder to all lurkers: “As for you, don't feel too bad. You can still proudly display the latest issue of Time, lousy mirror image and all. And don't feel bad if you don't go out and start a blog tomorrow.

If everyone did, who would have time to read it all, anyway?

Makes sense to me.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Memorable Night of Korean Company and Cuisine

Last night, our Korean neighbor, the very one we feted recently at TC Choy, a restaurant run by a Malaysian Chinese, returned the favor, and treated us to a sumptuous Korean dinner.

Now, this is the very first time we have been to a Korean restaurant (well, nobody in my family remembers ever being to one, including before we came to US. I thought I would like to dispute that but my effort was hampered by a lack of hard evidence and also that I’m outnumbered.)

The restaurant, Sa Ri One Restaurant, is along W Cypress St. It is a single one story building by itself and the inside is quite compactly laid out, meaning it’s quite cramped by US standards. We filed through a narrow passage way with a somewhat translucent cloth curtain separating it from the patron seating area to the right and entered a separate room. Cool, all to ourselves.

The wall is adorned with paintings of flowers and scenery. This one is a popular painting displaying cranes roosting amidst the pine trees forests. This is also a setting favored by Chinese painters as a crane is a symbol of longevity, so is old pine tree with the convoluted branches of stability and robustness.

Our host explained that Sa Ri One is the name of a town in North Korea near Pyongyang. But I did not pursue further as to whether the name means anything nor did I ask for its name in Chinese characters. And yes, my host knows Chinese characters too, even though she pronounces them differently from Mandarin. For example, written using Chinese characters, Pyongyang literally means flat/level plain/stratum.

Obviously our host with her entourage (daughter and son) has been here many times and so it seemed natural to defer our ordering decisions to her (the menu has the name of the dish in Korean, Romanized, I mean, with English descriptions of the contents).

I scanned through the menu, and had my eyes fixed on what appears to be the only vegetarian dish: tofu with vege soap. At first our host tried to talk me out of it, thinking perhaps that I needed to ingest something more meaty because of my physical bulk. But I insisted, and was vindicated, from my own perspective. However, it did taste like (definitely looked like) the famous Thai Tomyam soup, one which I’m familiar with, having come from the same region. That it was served over a kind of portable hot plate helped preserve the soup’s pungent taste even till the end of the dinner.

My wife ordered a chicken rice concoction topped with a fried egg and served in a stone bowl. It was too big a portion for her and I, as in numerous occasions, was called in to be the great finisher. My S and D each ordered BBQ beef and BBQ chicken, respectively. The chicken dish was spicy and the beef was not, according to the feedback I received from my two children.

A special feature of Korean cuisine is the side dishes. They comprise the famous Kimchi, a pickled cabbage, on the bottom right of the image, bean sprouts, fish cakes (bottom center), and some others that I could not name nor did I try (a complete description/critique of the side dishes and several entrees offered in this particular restaurant is available here, which I found out later after our very first culinary foray into Korean cuisine).

Like all good things, the dinner must and did end, but not until after we had stayed on to engage in a variety of life-probing questions like how my S was doing at UF, the expenses and dorm life. Tales of our (mine and the host’s) Ds’ college application were also exchanged.

Then group photos were taken for remembrance, one inside and one outside. To balance out, the two photographers was permitted to appear once while the others got “shot” twice. I did notice one thing strange though. In the photo taken inside, the bodies/heads of those by the two flanks leaned inward like trying to form a kind of group huddle.

On the other hand, all appeared erect on the one taken outside, but the flash may have reduced the lighted signage of the restaurant at the back to a bright blob.

All in all, the dinner was marked by great company, great food, and great setting. And our very first visit to a Korean restaurant was exactly that, a pleasant surprise.

So is this happy doodle on the Google search page. I especially think it's cute because one of my children, who shall not be named, is also into knitting. I can't wait to find out what he/she has in store for me as far as his/her handiwork goes.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

CyberNut or Not

England. Internet Addiction. Eight Major Maladies. This is the translation of an online headline at Sin Chew Daily my wife alerted me to. The opening paragraph first commented on the Time’s the Person of the Year honor as being half right as it failed to mention the risk of Internet surfing: addiction and pathological servitude to the virtual master that is Internet.

The article then proceeded to list the eight maladies associated with Internet addiction, quoting an article in The New Scientist. So I decided to look up the original source, and located the online article entitled Can’t get e-enough at its website. However, the article actually listed eleven such afflictions at the end under Modern Maladies.

In what follows, I’m going to reproduce the eleven maladies, each to be followed by a self-diagnosis of whether I’m free of the malaise, show symptoms, or cold turkey treatment is called for, in square brackets. Here I go.

1) Blog streaking: Revealing secrets or personal information online, which for everybody's sake would be best kept private.[I have two blogs, but in both cases only the bare minimum of personal information is divulged. At best, readers may be able to decipher some of my personal leanings by reading in between the lines. But again, that’s not likely to be any more revealing than, say reading a newspaper column as I have a very meticulous copy editor, my wife, who holds my tendency for excessive outpouring in check. So yes, I’m definitely fully clothed.]

2) Crackberry: The curse of the modern executive, not being able to stop checking your BlackBerry even at you grandmother's funeral. [This is simple enough as I have only a simple cell phone reminiscent of mobile phone technology that is at least three years old, and I don’t SMS, neither do others do me. Definitely not a crackpot.]

3) Cyberchondria: A headache and a particular rash at the same time? Extensive online research tells you it must be cancer. [I still go to a doctor’s office the conventional way if the discomfort, in which case I just sit it out, evolves into something more substantial, say, a full-blown flu. So I’m not hypochondriac at consulting a medical doctor, in person, neither am I averse to seeking a second opinion, from another medical doctor.]

4) Egosurfing: When "just checking" gets out of control. [Well, I’ve maybe googled a total of less than 5 times my own name, or variations thereof. But I do keep a stats counter to monitor traffic to my blogs, just so I know my readers and their distribution a bit better. This is Customer Relation 101. So I make myself invisible when I’m surfing.]

5) Infornography: You're beyond being a healthy "infovore": acquiring and sharing information has become an addiction for you. [Blogging does seem to suggest some flaunting. But as long as one is tactful, tasteful, and netiquettish, and does not peddle nor pander, information sharing is definitely much better than complaining, ranting, raving, and any amount of e-voring.]

6) You Tube narcissism: Not even your closest family want to see hours of your holiday videos. [I don’t have a videocam, and my digital cam shoots mostly nature and scenery. So Narcissus is no friend of mine.]

7) Google-stalking: Snooping online on old friends, colleagues or first dates. [Yes, I’ve heard of such intrusions. Then again, one should refrain from putting personal information on the Net that one wishes to remain private, just like leaving one’s phone number unlisted. Done judiciously, it’s a great way to locate a long lost friend, the happy reunion of some I’ve personally witnessed. So I will just call it googling.]

8) MySpace impersonation: Many of us pretend to be someone we're not when we are online, but some will pretend to be a well-known figure. [Not me. I’m who I’m, nothing more, nothing less. I may use a shortened version of my name, but at any one time, at least one part of my name will always be identified.]

9) Powerpointlessness: One too many flashy slides. [I use Powerpoint, as an aid to presentation, to communicating ideas. A busy, cluttered, or flashy slide will only detract from the true message. It’s pointless, and assuredly powerless.]

10) Photolurking: Flicking through a photo album of someone you've never met. [I thought you’ve to be invited to view an online photo album. Those who bypass this security blanket risks being lurked at and worse, leered at.]

11) Wikipediholism: Excessive devotion to a certain online collaborative encyclopedia. You can test whether you're an addict here. [I admire those who have the time, the energy, and the passion to become a wikipediholic. I think as a community-driven collaboration, it's second to none. Just today I saw this book, Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Willia, which extols the virtue of sharing in business collaboration. So sharing, wikipedia, wikinomics, and curriki, they are definitely the wave of the present and long into the future. Embrace them.]

So all in all, I certify myself to be a healthy blogger, of sound mind, and mature, down-to-earth disposition. There is nothing cyber about what I do except surfing. Can you say the same about you?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

“You’re All Winners.” Yeah, Right!

On the surface, there are no losers in this instance, all are winners for helping nudge digital democracy further along. By now you would have got confirmation of the honor (Person of the Year) bestowed by Time Magazine when its latest issue hit the newsstand on Monday or you can read about it here. If you are reading this blog, that very action definitely qualifies you to be in the winners' circle. On top of that, you deserve the virtual bouquet of flowers courtesy of my wife too.

Otherwise it is a moot point as you would not have been aware of it anyway. Let me contend that you're not in the minority if you're in the latter category, notwithstanding that there is a fictitious you sitting across the computer screen in that case.

There is even a Chinese translation here, to whose credit the image is owed.

According to Richard Stengel, who took over as Time’s managing editor this year (as quoted in Tampa Tribune (Dec 17, 2006, Nation/World, p. 3), “If you choose an individual, you have to justify how that person affected millions of people. But if you choose millions of people, you don’t have to justify it to anyone.”

That seems like a cope-out to me. And I can think of at least four categories of people who are not winners, just yet:

1) Those who are computer/internet illiterate;
2) Those who have no access to computers;
3) Those who have no or have been denied access to the Internet; and
4) Those whose Internet coverage has been filtered (here I’m not referring to the sexually explicit web sites).

So what about these people, which are left out through no fault (at least directly) of theirs? Surely they have no cause to celebrate, and might not even know of this award, being consumed in fending off numerous threats to their very existence.

Being a blogger myself, I certainly feel blessed to have the “time” and the “energy” and the “passion” to “blog about my state of mind or the state of the nation or” the tropical fruit offering at the newly upgraded SweetBay (from Kash n’ Karry) down the street. But perhaps the adulation went a bit too far with being given credit for “seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game.”

There are bloggers, and then there are bloggers. Not all bloggers are born, nurtured, and contributed alike. Certainly to “genuinely wonder who's out there looking back at them” is miles apart from “founding and framing the new digital democracy”. But I would grant, perhaps grudgingly, that it's a start.

The Time website has a collection of blogs about the award (13,789 at last count) and I've only read the first few. But if those are any indication, then my view is in the absolute minority, with another one arguing for Warren Buffett for his donations "to focus on world health, fighting diseases as malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis and on improving U.S. libraries and high schools."

So go ahead and bask in the glory. But remember much much more need to be done.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Our Cherished Values

Previously I’ve blogged about Jimmy Carter’s latest book, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2005), on his definition of success in life, in 50 words. I spent close to half of morning yesterday finishing reading the book, while my wife was taking part in the Buddhist mantra chanting session. This is not my usual style of reading, which tends to follow a discrete fashion, i.e., a few pages a day. That's why the book had been with me for the past nine weeks (original period plus two extension of 3 weeks each, which expired on the very day). Then again, it is not the only book that I was reading, which typically numbers several and which book gets to be read depends on where I'm in the house when the reading bug hits. But I must admit that reading the book from half way (covered in the above haphazard manner) till the end can be a breeze too. Anyway, back to the book.

I found more gems of thoughts from a well-regarded statesman who is also a devout Christian at heart, that resonate with my (limited) understanding of the Buddha teaching that has been my guiding light in life. Here are some:

1) "All major religious faiths are shaped by prophetic mandates to do justice, love mercy, protect and care for widows and orphans, and exemplify God's compassion for the poor and victimized." [So often the opposite messages are sent when a small group of followers takes upon themselves to wield and exercise the mandates within narrow interpretation, and selectively at that.]

2) What is the World's greatest challenge in the new millennium?
"The growing chasm between the rich and the poor people on earth, and the gap is steadily widening". [This is the proverbial dichotomy of the haves and haves-not, but I would grant that religious strife will take a close second.]

3) What can just one person do?
"When combined, the small individual contributors of caring, friendship, forgiveness, and love, each of us different from our next-door neighbors, can form a phalanx, an army, with great capability". [As I’ve said before, Buddhism stresses the here and now. So a person cared for, befriended, forgiven, or loved, is exactly that, and it is not going to diminish in any way no matter what the sheer number of people uncared for, dumped, avenged, or hated, is.]

4) The Declaration of Independence, among other things, decrees “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” [I’ve to plead ignorance for not realizing that the pursuit of happiness is explicitly stated as an unalienable right, despite having visited the Independence Hall at Philadelphia twice, the more recent trip made in June 2005 as per the picture taken in front of the Independence Visitor Center with the Liberty Bell in the background, through the glass wall. Just learned that the movie, Pursuit of Happyness (note that it’s spelt with a y) by Will Smith, topped the box office last week. So this shall be our next movie in the theatre after Happy Feet, unless we succumb to watching Night in the Museum by Ben Stiller and Robin Williams in the IMAX theatre first.]

5) What is a Superpower?
Size does matter, but it is not in terms of physical prowess, but rather the size of the heart as evinced through “a demonstrable commitment to truth, justice, peace, freedom, humility, human rights, generosity and the upholding of other moral values.” [such as compassion, giving, and lending a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on.]

6) OK, this last bit has more to do with economics and earning power, but in a way it’s also a viable means towards averting that yawning chasm listed above (2). In an earlier blog, I’ve stated that the minimum wage for Florida will be at $6.67 in 2007 while "Democrats have pledged to use their new control of Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour over two years from the current $5.15, the first increase in a decade”, according to an MSNBC online story entitled Small businesses brace for minimum wage hike. In comparison, the book provided the following minimum wage figures in US dollars and based on currency values in April 2005:
  • Australia, $8.66

  • France, $8.88

  • Italy, $9.18

  • England, $9.20

  • Germany, $12.74
Sobering news indeed.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Christmas (Atmosphere) @ Old Hyde Park

My office is located within the Old Hyde Park, which comprises rows of departmental stores radiating around a central square marked by a fountain and a space where a makeshift stage can be erected for any kind of live performance. Tucked behind the main road (South Dakota St) that cuts through the place are more shops that are being renovated.

On weekends the square is turned into a farmer’s market or Arts show while on some week nights, free concerts. An added attraction at this time of the year is the Christmas tree that is lighted at night with gift boxes stacked around it. Of course there is also a sled.

Just after sunrise this morning (officially listed as 7.14 am over the TV Weather News but I wonder how that’s determined, the first ray striking some predetermined mark on a scale or dial or based on some obscure astronomical calculation?), we again indulged in what has now become a routine: photo shoot session, trying to catch the Christmas spirit that permeates the air. At this early hour in the morning, the Christmas trees still wore the incandescent glow. However, I decided not to use the flash but instead opted for the dusk/dawn mode setting (oops, caught using the infamous double noun-adjectives), hence the purplish tinge. It’s obvious I’m just an amateur photographer who revels in seizing the moment rather than caring for the Kodak moment.

Most of the shops have yet to open for business, but we did find the usual morning exercise buffs, and an occasional cleaner going about her business. While exploring the shops behind the main road (our D has told us after one of her forays here earlier that the back shop area seemed deserted), I came across this series of animal paintings (I vaguely remember the shop has been vacated by the Humane Society of Animals). While broad brushed with simple paint strokes, the animals looked cute in various poses.

I remember watching the movie, Fiddler on the Roof, with Topol in the lead. It was such a nice musical and Tradition, Tradition … (there is supposed to be a tune somewhere.) Anyway, this is no Fiddler, but instead is Santa Claus on the roof with Rudolf and several of his brethren seemingly about to set off on a gift delivery galore. I am sure it would have looked better with the lights on, and at night. Now it’s just a faint outline against the grayish backdrop typical of the twilight zone.

My wife thought this was the American graffiti or something of that genre. But she could be excused because of the poor light and she was way across the street when she noticed the writing on the wall, literally. Actually it’s a mural drawing portraying city kids (evidenced from the skyscrapers in the background) in high spirit, celebrating life I suppose. This kind of street art (as distinct from Arts shows) is rare in Tampa, or at least this part of the town, unlike inner cities elsewhere which can be a couple of storey high as seen on movies.

I’m not sure whether this is an aberration, a stroke of genius, or just some mechanical snafu, but it’s actually a three-in-one shot. The real thing, or the thing I was looking at, is the nightly Lightning Round on the Fox 13 night show as part of its newscast. One of the guests was Robert Weiner, the Plant coach who featured prominently in the no-loss season for Panthers football this year and was named the high school coach of the year. You can see that at one instant he was sitting at one of the corners of a 4-corner seating arrangement and then his front shot all by himself was superposed, with another small reflection of the TV screen right in the middle.

However, those are just of peripheral interest, for now. What I wanted to highlight that bears on the Christmas season is the headline at the bottom of the screen: Christmas Trees Yanked. Apparently, a rabbi has requested for a menorah, a branched candlestick used during the Hanukkah festival, to be displayed at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport together with the Christmas displays. So the Airport management decided to remove the Christmas trees instead as they do not have time to put up the menorah nor other religious displays due to the busy season and yet do not wish to appear as being partial to the Christmas Festival. But all ended well as the rabbi would not complain further because it was not his intention to have the Christmas displays taken down. At the same time, the Airport management also promised to look into the matter next year in a holistic manner. This is how potential disputes borne out of misunderstanding is settled, amicably, with give-and-take, through open discussion, and by coming to the table.

Here I would like to close with a saying I’ve read somewhere:

“A mind is like a parachute. It works best when it’s open.” How sagacious.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Success in Life

I believe that anyone can be successful in life, regardless of natural talent or the environment within which we live. This is not based on measuring success by human competitiveness for wealth, possessions, influence, and fame, but adhering to God’s standards of truth, justice, humility, service, compassion, forgiveness, and love.”

This is what Jimmy Carter defined as “success in life”, in 50 words. And where did I find that? It’s in his book, Our Endangered Values, with the tagline American’s Moral Crisis (Simon and Schuster, 2005, p. 28).

A similar set of values also permeates the Buddhist teachings, each cherished and to be practiced in our humanistic interactions with one another. So often we only pay lip service to this gold standard of moral behavior, while sidestepping it when it is inconvenient or expeditious.

At other times, we view ourselves as the only purveyor of truth, dispensing justice as we deem fit in the most dogmatic fashion. Those in high places put their needs, or rather wants, before those of the people they were elected to serve in the first place.

Then there is the NIMBY syndrome, out of sight, out of mind. We grow accustomed to the daily doses of life’s travesty spanning the newspaper pages, the atrocities flashing across the TV screens/computer monitors, the mental images vanished at the stroke of a switch.

Then we rationalize our apathy on having to make a living, preferring not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of it all by preoccupying ourselves within our confines. Oftentimes there is a lack of empathy, a failure to feel for the victims, for the vanquished, for the disenfranchised. It’s as if we are watching a movie, the human suffering occurring in a make-believe world on a two-dimensional rendering that is the celluloid.

But, does it have to be that way? For how long do we want to keep leaving to others to save the world, while unabashedly enjoying the fruits of their labor and sacrifice?

Sure, the effort of an individual seems almost pathetic or laughable, if you so inclined, in the face of the onslaught exacted by the crushing wheels of life’s injustice. But one human helped is, one human less to be helped who in turns is able to help another. And that reduces the suffering humans geometrically, much like a compound interest building up the capital (the humans able to help).

I think we need to start believing in ourselves, that what we do in our own way by adhering to the gold standard of moral living as espoused by Jimmy Carter, no matter how small our sphere of reach may seem, does matter, at the minimum to the ones we have helped directly. And let the power of compounding help spread like a progressive wave that radiates in all directions.

‘Think Globally, Act Locally.” That’s a slogan bandied about a long time ago. But that’s the paradigm that we need to imbue in ourselves, to reinforce our already frail psyche that the good deeds we do shall not be in vain.

A Chinese Buddhist adage that I’ve come across and that I’ve adopted as my motto in conducting my daily life, reads, literally translated:

“Do not neglect doing a good deed because it seems petty;
Nor commit an infraction because it is inconsequential.”

So it is not enough merely abstaining from doing the bad, we must also proactively do the good.

Let’s start/continue to do a good deed, at least once a day, be it giving way to another road user, donating to a worthy cause, greeting a stranger, doing more than your share of the work, volunteering in caring for the needy, be magnanimous in victory, and graceful in defeat.

And that is my humble recipe for being successful in life, in 50 words, or thereabout, straight from the gut.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Ecstasy of Victory: The High School Football Version

1.53 am. That was the time on my watch when my D walked through the door this morning upon her return from her school, jubilant, chatty, despite the physical toll exerted on her for having being out of the house for two consecutive days (calendar-wise). I guess this is what victory does to you, it's so spirit uplifting that for a moment there the mind takes over the body. I shall recap briefly the events that led up to that euphoric moment later in the blog.

On the other hand, I was slouching on my seat, mind half asleep wandering through the events of the last two days: rising early at 5 am plus to get the tires fixed, and again yesterday morning to send my D to her school for her Miami trip, followed by the release life activity in the morning, and celebrating the recent matrimony of a fellow buddhist friend in the evening, and coping with the near continuous worrying about her whereabouts spawned by her remaining largely incommunicado on the return trip from Miami. I suppose the constant din in the bus and the excitement of the game itself must have drowned out the pleading rings from a pair of anxious parent. And so it is a matter of she calling us, strictly one-way communication. And she did, to her credit, and that helped put our minds at ease, until the next panicky pang struck. You know how parents are.

She left the house at 6 am the previous morning to head for Miami as part of her school's entourage heading for Miami in chartered buses to support the school football team in the State 4A championship game. She was all excited and all that, this being her very first outing to such a distant place (more than 300 miles away), in the company of cool friends (seen here with one of them, and obviously having a good time), and for a worthy purpose as far as her school is concerned.

So while we settled at the home base for the release life activity blogged here, our D braved the elements (the weather down at Miami was actually comparatively sunny as opposed to the chilly weather (in the high 40s, Farenheit of course) here, the consequence of a cold front passing through), in the open air Dolphin Stadium, prancing around and hopping up and down to the rhythm of the match. And yes, the last bit was my imagination as they seemed pretty controlled here, their team in white jerseys and back facing the photo while the opposing team (in golden jerseys was in the field warming up).

Now the Dolphin Stadium is the home field for the professional football team, the Miami Dolphins, which normally is filled to capacity when a home game is on. But as you can see, it looked rather deserted when the game involved two out-of-town teams, and high school boys at that. Anyway, the encampment is distinct, HB Plant High on one side and the opposing team on the other, kind of like within holler distance if you shriek at your full-lung capacity. This shot was taken at half-time when the band from HB Plant High was doing their bit to fire up the passion for support, and you can see from the scoreboard (top of image) that the Panthers (that's my D's school) was leading 17-3, which actually stood at 17-zip just prior to that. Seemed quite a comfortable lead right? Wrong, the Panthers, in an uncharacteristic fashion led by its quarterback who threw two interceptions in the second half, conceded 21 unanswered points and was actualy down 21-17 with another 3 minutes to go. Talk about nail-biter, at the edge of your seat anxiety, and living dangerously.

Anyway, to cut through the chase, the Panthers of the HB Plant High School finally won, 25-21, a feat not settled for certainty until the last 3 seconds of the game when the Quarterback of the opposing team was sacked. And then the whole hell broke loose. Imagine thousands of highly strung high school kids invading the field, hoisting up their team members, and dousing cold water on the coach. Yes, that's my imagination running wild again, having seen the entire sequence repeatedly on TV and live telecasts of professional and college football games. I'm sure the high school kids are no less dramatic in celebrating a well-deserved win.

Unfortunately, you will have to bear with my plain narrative as in her moment of anxiously waiting for the team to return (her entourage reached the school at about 11.30 pm, about one and a half hours earlier than the team bus), she has left her camera in her ride's car. So no pictorial depiction of the dizzying moments when the team went up the stage to a standing ovation, hoisting the trophy high, of the coach and the players making thank-you speeches, and of confetti being jettisoned from all corners of the Gym. No? Well, I told you I've unbridled imagination.

For those, you would have to read today's issue of the Tampa Tribune, complete with eye-riveting images and attention grabbing headlines like Cinderella-like season, winning spirit, and such, and professioanal journalistic display of prose writing.

And apologies if I have not mentioned the name of the opposing team, partly because it's a monthful: Ponte Vedra Beach Nease High School, located on the east coast in St. Johns District near to Jacksonville, despite it being the defending champ. But no disrespect is intended.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Kick Volleyball

I was befuddled too when I first read about Kick Volleyball in today's tbt. Upon further reading, I realized that the apparent confusion is the consequence of a literal translation of "Sepak Takraw", a traditional game played in the part of the world I came from.

"Sepak Takraw" is a Malaysian-Thai hybrid where "Sepak" means kick in Malay while "Takraw" is the Thai word for ball. The Malay word for ball is very similar, it being "bola". So what is football in Malay? No, it is not "Sepak Bola". That's kick ball. Instead, it's "Bola Sepak". Go figure.

As for Kick Volleyball, perhaps the reporter has seen the parallel between boxing and kick boxing where in addition to punches, the leg is used extensively in a variety of lethal moves.

"Sepak Takraw" is played with a rattan ball, hence the game used to be known as "Sepak Raga" in Malaysia where "Raga" is, well, rattan ball. Played usually three to a side, it is very much like volleyball except here the hand is replaced by the leg, doing the three-part dig, set, and spike. The image to the left, courtesy of the World of Sepak Takraw website, shows how the game was once played, the players barefooted and dressed in traditional garb.

It's a visually spectacular game involving highly acrobatic action moves at least some of which are momentarily gravity-defying, body seemingly suspended in mid air, leg on top in a wide downward sweeping arc motion that slams the "takraw" into the opponent's court. See for yourself, image courtesy of the official website of the 15th Asian Games.

And for more on the game, please visit the World of Sepak Takraw website.

Through time the game has become a permanent fixture in the SEA (Southeast Asian) games and now, the Asian Games. If I recall correctly, "Sepak Takraw" was made an exhibition game in the Olympics. So it may be fair to say that in the not so distant future, "Sepak Takraw" could well feature in the Olympics with its gold up for grab, thereby paving the way for Malaysia to win her first ever Olympic Gold.

However, that may yet seem a tall order as Malaysia just lost to her arch rival, Thailand, in the "Sepak Takraw" team final match played yesterday in the 15th Asian Games. Sigh.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Alpha, Beta, Communication, Durian

It was going to happen sooner or later, and today seems the right day to do it. I'm talking about migrating upward to Blogger Beta, in the process introducing some enhancements that hopefully will add more appeal to its look.

Blue has always been my favorite color, especially the turquoise variant. Just look at the sky on a clear and cloudless day, miles and miles of bluey expanse filling one's vista.

Of course I'm also mindful of the mental mood associated with blue, or rather blues, as in the Monday blues. But this is one such occasion that I will depart from the norm, and embrace blue as the color of linkage, of inter-dependency, of symbiosis, of synergy, of peaceful co-existence among the inhabitants of the Blue Planet that we all have a stake in ensuring her continuous wellbeing.

Ever wonder why we usually refer to planet Earth or a country using the female gender such as her citizens, her long and tortuous route to independence, etc.? It must have something to do with the child bearing ability of the female species. Just think of Mother Earth, Motherland, and so on.

Then there are the assigned names of hurricanes. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita come readily to mind. Further back in time are Georges, Betsy, and Clauddete, to name just a few. Perhaps a woman's fury knows no bound? Or the weather has a temperament of a woman? But to her defense, we also have the likes of Andrew and Hugo, two decidedly masculine names bestowed upon two devastating hurricanes that wreaked havoc along the Eastern seaboard.

Perhaps the naming conventions of hurricanes here can take a page from typhoons in Asia. The latest typhoon that walluped the Philippines and to a lesser extent, Vietnam, is named Durian. Now Durian, which in the Malay language means thorn-ful, is considered the King of Fruits from where I come from. It's the king because of its richly fragrant taste that seems to linger on forever, provided of course one can get over the strong aroma shrouding the fruit that may border on pungency to the untrained nose, first. Secondly, there is also the physical barrier in the form of the many sharp thorns that populate its hard skin. See for yourself, courtesy of Durian Online, and the fruit is well worth the effort, I can assure you.

So how about Avocado/Apricot, Blueberry/Blackberry, Cantaloupe/Cherry, ... but then I got stuck in D (other than Durian). So the name list does make sense.

On the other hand, we used to employ the male gender to refer to all people in general when used in the third person. Now it is politically correct to use the hybrid form he/her or his/her in a similar context.

Until I read the following paragraph in the news article entitled "Businesses, Schools Target Bad Writing" under National Spotlight in today's Tampa Tribune:

"They have to focus on the needs of the reader," O'Rourke said, "Otheriwse, she won't pay attention, she won't do what you want, she won't retain what you said."

So now the generic reader is referred to in the feminine. I'm not sure how prevalent this practice is as this is the first time I've seen this in print, especially from one whose business is to teach students to write correctly, he (Jim O'Rourke) being a management professor at University of Notre Dame and director of the university's Fanning Center for Business Communication. Or was he misquoted by the reporter? Not likely either. Anyway, personally I still feel that the hybrid form, albeit appearing clumsy, is the way to go.

So 06-12-06, that is today's date using the day-month-year format, or year-month-day if you prefer, adds some symmetry to the occasion of my blog change from alpha to beta.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Bye to Hurricanes but not to AIDS, Yet


Today is the last day of November 2006. It brings to a close the official Hurricane season of 2006, the much dreaded period because of what happened in the past two years.

Instead of 15 named storms as forecast, we had 9, five of which are hurricanes, but none of the landfalling type. Due to a combination of favorable meteorological factors, these hurricanes were steered offshore and died a natural death in the deep embrace of the ocean while those in gestation were smacked to smithereens.

Off the top of my head (actually I read the associated news article in today’s tbt, but have decided to disposed of it in the trash bin in the office, so I hope my memory would serve me right), these complicit influences include the El Nino phenomenon, which is the unusual warming of the western Pacific leading to cold upwelling off the Peruvian coast, the Bermuda High, the cooler sea surface temperature in the beginning of the year, the dust storm in Africa, and even global warming.

However, the El Nino season usually brings heavy rain and engenders large storm waves off the western seaboard of US as occurred in 1982/83. So something that’s good for one place is not necessarily beneficial for another place.

Today is also the last day for Nanowrimo 2006, which I blogged previously under the title Blogathon to Novel Writing before its launch at the beginning of this month. The latest word count is approaching the 1 billion mark (actually 909,464,173 at 7.08pm EST). That’s almost like 19,000 writers at 50,000 words each, almost doubled the near 10,000 achieved last year. Log in to Nanowrimo tomorrow to see the list of winners who have probably sacrificed a lot during the month for the love of writing.

Today is also the eve of World Aids Day, which is observed on December 1 each year and is dedicated to raising awareness of the global AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection.

Here are some chillingly stark facts gleaned from Wikipedia and World Aids Day 2006 websites:
  • AIDS has killed more than 25 million people, making it one of the most destructive epidemics in recorded history.

  • Despite recent, improved access to antiretroviral treatment and care in many regions of the world, the AIDS epidemic claimed an estimated 3.1 million (between 2.8 and 3.6 million) lives in 2005 of which, more than half a million (570,000) were children.

  • Around forty million people are living with HIV throughout the world - and that number increases in every region every day.

  • Ignorance and prejudice are fuelling the spread of a preventable disease.

So, if you could, please wear a red ribbon, which is the global symbol for solidarity with HIV-positive people and those living with AIDS, on December 1.

(Thanks to Yu Huei Chen for the heads up on World Aids Day 2006.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Malaysia and US: World's Apart?


Moving halfway around the world from Malaysia to US has opened my eyes to some of the differences that exist between the two countries. While some of these are obvious, others are less so, but still palpable to the discerning eyes.

The obvious ones, other than in terms of population and size, include (Malaysia first) equatorial versus temperate climates, monsoons versus hurricanes/tornadoes, constitutional monarchy versus democratic republic style of government, Islam versus Christianity as the dominant religion, driving on the left side of the road as opposed to the right side, the use of Metric units versus English units of measurement, and the most obvious of the lot, a 3rd world country versus a first world country in terms of development.

The less obvious ones, which may escape the notice of the occasional visitors to the two countries, comprise the following mundane stuff on a day-to-day basis:
Customer service: While most government and the commercial sectors in Malaysia have instituted the system of numbered tickets issued by an auto-dispenser in line with the first-come-first-served principle, customers in US still have to stand in line to be served, be it in the bank, post office, RMV (Registrar of Motor Vehicles) office, or SSA (Social Security Administration) office.

But I must admit that the lines here are short, and is nothing compared with the crowd of people sitting around, or some standing against the walls, waiting impatiently for their numbers to be called, in Malaysia. One reason is online transaction is the norm here, even for renewing a driving license, but non-immigrants are excluded as the officer needs to verify an applicant’s INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) documents. Drive-through service is also popular, especially for banking and ordering fast food. Of course here the human queue is replaced by the automobile queue.

Who knows, when Malaysia has fully caught on with these “conveniences”, we may yet see people queuing up for service, but hopefully the queue will be short, consisting of the distrustful (of things Cyber) and the disenfranchised (from the Internet boom).

Healthcare: Since seeing a doctor still does not cause a bomb in Malaysia, paying from one’s own pocket is still the norm. But at US, the cost of healthcare has escalated so much that even paying premiums for health insurance is beyond the average wage earner. To offset the rising premiums, some have resorted to increasing the co-pays and deductibles, so much so that some have elected to stay uninsured, hoping that their bodies will be able to take the daily knocks and toll relatively unscathed.

Some would blame this dire state of affair on the litigious tendency leading to medical law suits. In turn, the insurers raise the rates to compensate for such eventualities.

But as Malaysia ascends to developed nationhood, her embracing of a similar healthcare system seems inevitable.

Traffic Regulations: While helmets are ubiquitous in Malaysia, motor-bikers here wear baseball caps or tie bandanas to their foreheads instead, or simply letting their hair down. On the other hand, while motor-cyclists in Malaysia weave in and out of traffic at will, motor-bikers here stay in their own lanes, even in traffic stops.

The other common sight in Malaysia is drivers using hands-free kits to use their cell-phones. Otherwise they risk being fined. Here drivers talk on their mobile phones all the time, while negotiating turns. The other thing is road rage is rare here, let alone road bully. Courtesy is the way here and it is not surprising to see drivers often leaving a space in front of a junction while stopping for a traffic light for cars to turn out or in.

In Malaysia, tail-gating is more the rule than the exception while moving, and bumper-to-bumper crawl is the natural thing to do lest an errant car coming up from the wrong side dare to take up the intervening space.

Fastfood restaurants: Malaysia has its fair share of US fastfood chain stores: MacDonald, KFC, Pizza Hut, to name just a few. While self-service is the mode of operation in both countries, the papers tissues/napkins and the condiments (packets of sauces) are placed outside the counter and customers just help themselves to them in US. On the other hand, these are kept behind the counter and given upon requests.

Newspaper vending machines: Similarly, these are commonplace here where the right amount of coins will unlatch the door for retrieval of one’s copy of the purchase. It’s the same honor system found in the library’s sale corner, which is unmanned. One selects the books, puts the cash in an envelope, and deposits it in a box.

That such “conveniences” are not found in Malaysia tends to speak volumes of the level of civic-mindedness and integrity of the citizenry in general. It is not merely doing something wrong while nobody is watching, but rather doing the right thing at all times.

Granted US is not a bed of roses, nor is the crime rate here, at certain localities, something to boast about. But there is enough self-restraint, enough role models, enough showing by example, enough check and balance, and an overriding sense of accountability, for the morally weak to desist from wrong-doing.

This is evident from day-to-day interactions, on the street, at a mall, in the office, on a public transport. But there exists a disconnect, a huge one, between the behavior of the individual people we meet, and the image of US as a nation, no thanks to the particularly pernicious way in which her foreign policy and her agenda have been imposed in the international arena, be it the Iraqi quagmire, or the impasse of the Kyoto Protocol.

So while US problems are exogenic (the litany of domestic problems such as healthcare while daunting, seems manageable), the Malaysia malaise seems endogenic, as revealed in a not so friendly but frank account entitled “While Malaysia Fiddles its Opportunities, Its Opportunities Are Running Dry" from down under.

In fact, if you visit Michael Backman (the author of the above piece)’s website, you will see that he actually has a special column on the Malaysia controversy.

A Malaysian friend has emailed me his indignation at such a humiliating article, more so because it is from an outsider who is unlikely to be privy to many an ongoing in Malaysia, and therefore may smack of fabrication. But is it really so? You tell me.

Friday, November 24, 2006

How I Beat the Black Friday


Today is Black Friday, the name traditionally given to the day after Thanksgiving. I did not know why so until Bill explained to me in simple economic terms. It is a day of extreme discounts offered by most store chains, each clamoring for the attention of the holiday shoppers by opening in the wee hours of the morning (5am is the standard) and ending the store-wide sale by 11am.

It is also the day when the stores would generate the most sales for the year, literally turning their balance books from red to black. I’ve read in the past years about shoppers lining up a couple of hours before opening time, each wanting a piece of the action of the mad rush for the cheapest buy of the day.

The closest I got to one was the last one, dropping by a WalMart around 9.30am. The carpark was near full capacity and I think we decided to just walk away for we really do not fancy jostling for position to partake of the bounty.

This year I did not participate too, in the real rush. But I did wake up early in the morning and took part in the Black Friday sale galore, in the warm comfort of home. I’m referring to the online sale events (and I’m pretty sure the goods go for the same advertised low prices). No lining up outside the store in the cold. No rushing through the aisles looking for the coveted item, and definitely no lining up again to pay for the purchase. Granted I will be receiving the goods sometimes next week. But for the comfort and the absence of stress-induced agitation, I could live with a few days’ wait.

Well, different folks, different tunes. I don’t rule out that there are people who enjoy the adrenalin rush engendered by real competitive action, beating somebody to the line, the cashier line.

And I still had energy left to accompany my family for a movie treat in the afternoon: Happy Feet, in the IMAX theatre. And after that, this blog early in the night.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thanksgiving: Season for Being Thankful

I had my first US sighting of a highway turning into one long line of parking lots, practically, today on our way to fetch our son back from UF. The highway is I-75 between Micanopy and Ocala. Fortunately, the gridlock eased off after the turnoff into the Florida Turnpike and we reached home about one hour later than normal.

However, the highway traffic jam differs from that in Malaysia in one major aspect: all the cars here keep within the moving lanes, none venturing into the side tables/emergency lanes, save for one siren blaring police car. In Malaysia, a six-lane highway would be turned into an 8-lane thoroughfare, with vehicles constantly weaving in and out.

Today is the eve of Thanksgiving, a decidedly US tradition. So a lot of folks were trying to get home (It was reported in the Today Show of today that an estimated 34 millions will be on the road during this year’s thanksgiving travel.). So I guess it’s not out of place for us to be thankful for the things that we have been blessed with and for the events that have left an indelible impression on us in the past year. In random order, I would like to recount the following as being particularly worthy of mention at the personal level:

  • My wife continued to adjust well to the less hectic life here minus most of the social mingling and has become receptive to perhaps making a more permanent transition here.

  • Our children are great and doing great, either gainfully employed or academically challenged (in the positive sense).

  • My work is great, and professionally challenging.

  • We have had a hurricane-free year (the hurricane season officially ends on Nov 30, but I would be surprised, though not pleasantly, if one were to strike between now and then, and that will be bucking the trend indeed).

  • We were able to attend two series of Dharma lecture series by Venerable Bhikkhuni Sing Yi and Venerable Master Hui Zheng.

  • We are all healthy enough to obviate hospital visits.

At the societal level and beyond, we are thankful that no major calamity has occurred, though several flashpoints continue to simmer (religious conflict, Dafur, North Korea missile testing, Global warming, and discord in the Kyoto Accord).

May all beings be well, happy, and peaceful.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Lying Statistics, Or Not?

The national unemployment rate is at a low 4.7%,” so said Elaine L. Chao, Secretary of Labor during a speech
delivered at the National Academies. The occasion was the Convocation on Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing Regions, States, and Cities held on Sep 28, 2006.

That’s one statistic that should make the doubters of the American economy cringe. We have often heard the refrain, “Statistics don’t lie”, when they are used to justify a cause. But don’t they?

In his book, How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff cautions that "The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify."

Welcome to the world of statistics that helps us make sense of the huge amount of data that we collect. Averages, correlations, regression, and various coefficients of statistical measures now dominate every presentation, be it sales pitch, forensics, and the state of environment.

In my own work, I use statistics in calibrating a computer model to reproduce real-world events, in this case it could be a tidal flow regime. Computer models are necessarily approximations due to our incomplete understanding of the physical processes involving a cascade of scales, both spatial and temporal, and the absence of close-form solutions for the governing equations.

The approximation introduced and the averaging, both over time and space, which implies that phenomena occurring within a shorter time span and smaller than a certain length scale will not be simulated, are aimed at making the problem tractable and amenable to numerical solutions. These omissions are accounted for, at least partially, by introducing empirical parameters, which are called fudge factors by skeptics.

The purpose of the model calibration is to vary these fudge factors within, hopefully, a physically meaningful range, so that model results fit well with observations and measurements of some variables (water elevations and flow velocity in the case of tidal modeling). Often times the variations of these variables over a time period (time series) at several locations within the domain of interest are used as the basis for comparison. The easiest comparison is done graphically by eyeballing the goodness of fit of the modeled curve to the measured curve.

A more elaborate, and supposedly objective, means of evaluating the goodness of fit is to employ statistical analysis such as computing the correlation or the root-mean-square error. That, in a nutshell, is how I employ statistics in one aspect of my work.

Thus satisfied, the whole process is repeated for another independent set of observation, but with the values of the “calibrated” fudge factors held constant. Only when this verification phase is satisfactorily concluded is the model deemed validated, and can hence be used in the prognostic mode with some measure of confidence.

Regardless of whether statistics is employed to illustrate a national average such as that cited by the Secretary of Labor or to validate a numerical model in my work, it is just a tool to represent a state of affair concisely, and perhaps simplistically, so that human minds can make sense of it and thus make informed decision.

In that sense, I do believe that statistics don't lie, unless the data used are cooked or massaged. Or the samples are not representative or biased. And that is precisely where one can lie with statistics.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Recognizing Logical Fallacies


Ever heard of circular reasoning? Wikipedia defines it as “a formal logical fallacy in which the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises.”

I found a witty rejoinder to that put-down in the Reference Frame column in the November 2006 of Physics Today entitled “Reasonably effective: 1. Deconstructing a miracle” by Frank Wilczek, the Herman Feshback Professor of Physics at MIT. The setting is conjured up by the sentence “Mathematics is effective in describing nature because nature obeys mathematical concepts.”

In Professor Wilczek’s own rebuttal: “the world line of a circular argument can be an ascending helix.” For the less mathematically inclined, a helix is a curve in 3-dimensional space, but an ascending helix looks circular when viewed from the top, and an ascending spiral when viewed from the side. So on closer examination, the reasoning is not really circular, and hence, not a logical fallacy. Of course one still has to substantiate that with the facts of the arguments, without which it remains a hollow claim.

That brings me to another logical fallacy, ad hominem argument, which, as defined by Wikipedia, "involves replying to an argument or assertion by attacking the person presenting the argument or assertion rather than the argument itself". This is tantamount to killing the messenger for the message, which is a dishonorable act in ancient Chinese military warfare.

In lawyer parlance, this ploy is called discrediting the witness and is often employed to mangle the credibility of a key witness to shreds, at least in TV crime series.

In the political arena, a straw man argument is in vogue. According to Wikipedia, it is “a logical fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position. To "set up a straw man" or "set up a straw-man argument" is to create a position that is easy to refute, then attribute that position to the opponent.”

While most of us do not actually engage in arguments, be they in courts or out of courts such as public forums, or peer reviews, we often do debate within ourselves as to the veracity of a claim, be it of local implications such as zoning for area development or siting of hazardous facilities, or of global ramifications such as choosing fuel-efficient hybrid cars over gas guzzlers. Therefore, we must be circumspect and discerning of actions that seem innocuous but are in actual fact potentially detrimental. We must be able to see through all the glib talks, the sleek presentations, and the cloak of logical fallacies, several of which are enumerated above.

Here is an analogy I read in a Chinese blog by Venerable Hui Zheng whom I’ve blogged previously, but used here in a different sense to illustrate our tendency to see the tree for the forest.

A teacher enters a class and puts a white dot on the center of the blackboard. He then asks the class, “What is that?”

“A white dot,” the whole class answers in unison.

Feigning surprise, the teacher asks in amazement, “Is there a white dot only? Don’t you all see the big black board?”

In his effort, Venerable Master Hui Zheng uses the the reverse, i.e., a black dot in the center of a white board, to drive home the point that we often see the “black spot” on others, but missing the much greater space of “impeccably white” that others exhibit. Therefore, we should frequently pardon the weaknesses of others. At the same time, we should endeavor to discover their merits. This dual but complementary attitude will surely make for a harmonious world.

In my context here, my point is not to get drawn in by a particular argument (the white dot), however cogent it may seem, and become oblivious to the greater harm (black board) that may ensue. May we all have the courage to change the things that we can, the serenity to accept the things that we can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

High Performance Computing to AI to the Chinese Room


Headlined Tampa’s Super Computer Show, today’s Tampa Tribune reports in its Business Section that the Tampa Convention Center will host SC06, short for SuperComputing 2006, on Nov 11-17. This year the conference will take its inspiration from Albert Einstein who said, "Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination," so said the SC06 website , touting the byline, Powerful Beyond Imagination.

More than 9,000 computing experts from all over the world will attend the conference, with the highlight being the release of their Top 500 list of the world’s powerful computers. And along with that coveted crown goes the bragging rights of being the world’s fastest computing machine for the next one year.

To whet your appetite, last year’s clear winner was BlueGene/L System, a joint development of IBM and DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and installed at DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in Livermore, CA, a familiar pinnacle for BlueGene/L, one on which it has emplaced firmly in the last three TOP500 lists.

How fast is it? 280.6 teraFLOPS (or trillions of calculations per second), and it is the only system ever to exceed the level of 100 teraFLOPS. In fact, of the Top ten, 6 are from US (occupying the top 4), the remaining four being France (1), Japan (2) and Germany (1). So US still enjoys a pre-eminent position in the rarefied realm of high performance computing, even though there was a momentary scare when Japan announced its Earth Simulator some years back. Incidentally, the Earth Simulator of Japan is now placed 10th.

Some of the mind-boggling statistics from the Tampa tribune news report include:
  • A combined capacity of about 100 gigabits per second (at least 20,000 times more capacity than the fastest home broadband Internet link, to put it in perspective).

  • If the trade show were a country, it could rank as 4th or 5th in the world for computing horsepower.

  • At the end of it all, much of the computing hardware (e.g., fiber optic connections) will stay, making the Tampa Convention Center one of the most well-connected digital hubs in the world.

In this highly charged virtual atmosphere of tera-scale computing and petaFLOPS, it is inevitable that people will try to pit the performance of the high performance computers (artificial intelligence in this corner) against the ultimate thinking machine (the human brain at the other corner).

In 1997, we were enthralled by the hype accompanying the defeat of the then reigning world champion in chess, Garry Kasparov of Russia, by the computer system dubbed "Deep Blue" (actually the upgraded version nicknamed "Deeper Blue"), as reported here, raising the specter of the advent of the supremacy of machine over man.

In this regard, the Tampa Tribune news report of the day has the following to say:

The brain operates at an estimated 1 to 2 petaflops a second [1,000 to 2,000 teraFLOPS], or a thousand, trillion calculations a second, many times faster than IBM’s fastest supercomputer.

“And that happens in the space of about one liter in your head at a temperature of 98.6 degrees, with 30, 40, 80 years of training,” Dart
[Eli Dart, a network engineer for the Energy Sciences Network, a project of the Department of Energy, quoted earlier in the news report] said, “We’ve got a long way to go before we get that.”

Now, that’s comforting.

According to Wikipedia, a brain has a processing capacity of 100 trillion instructions per second [100 teraFLOPS, with the understanding that the three terms, calculations, operations, and instructions, are used interchangeably]. Now, earlier in the news report, it was stated that at present “that machine [BlueGene/L] can operate at 360 trillion calculations a second [360 teraFLOPS].”

For further corroboration, I did an online search. According to the online article entitled Nations in Race to Produce World's Fastest, Most Powerful Computer at Red Orbit, “The current supercomputing speed champion, at 280 trillion calculations a second [280 teraFLOPS], is the IBM BlueGene/L, housed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.”

Then from the online article entitled Fastest Supercomputer in the World at the LLNL website:

"BlueGene/L—first on the Linpack TOP500 list of supercomputers with a sustained world-record speed of 280.6 teraFLOPS—is a revolutionary, low-cost machine delivering extraordinary computing power for the nation's Stockpile Stewardship Program.

Located in the Terascale Simulation Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, BlueGene/L is used by scientists at Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia National Laboratories. The 360-teraFLOPS machine handles many challenging scientific simulations, including ab initio molecular dynamics; three-dimensional (3D) dislocation dynamics; and turbulence, shock, and instability phenomena in hydrodynamics. It is also a computational science research machine for evaluating advanced computer architectures
."

So while rated at 360 teraFLOPS, BlueGene/L has a sustained speed of 280.6 teraFLOPS. So we are comparing a human brain with a computational speed of 100 – 2,000 teraFLOPS, typical of an average Joe on the street, against a top-notched supercomputer, which is only one of its kind, with a computational speed of 280-360 teraFLOPS.

Hmmm, we are still pretty good, but the darn machine is getting too close for comfort.

Fortunately, if you believe so, human intelligence is not measured in terms of raw speed only. We also have other mental states like emotions, deep meaning, and yes, nuances and semantics.

For reassurance, we can turn to the Chinese Room argument , a thought experiment designed by John Searle and published in his paper "Minds, brains and programs" of 1980. In a nutshell, Searle's contended that “syntax (grammar) is not tantamount to semantics (meaning)”.

Since its introduction, the Chinese Room argument “has been a mainstay of the debate over the possibility of what Searle called strong artificial intelligence (AI)", which posits that “an appropriately programmed computer actually counts as a mind...That is, it understands, has cognitive states, and can think.”

Because of space constraint, I am paraphrasing the Chinese Room argument here from the Wikipedia article:

Suppose that we are able to construct a computer that takes Chinese characters as input and, following a set of rules, correlates them with other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose that this computer performs this task so convincingly that it convinces a human Chinese speaker that it is a Chinese speaker. So the proponents of strong AI conclude that the computer understands Chinese, just as the person does.

Now, in analogy, Searle imagines himself [the computer program] to be in a small room [the computer hardware] in which he receives Chinese characters, consults a rule book, and returns the Chinese characters that the rules dictate, exactly the same way as the computer would do (or actually instructed to do). In the same fashion, he argues that like him, the computer doesn't understand Chinese either, because it is in the same situation as he is. “They are mindless manipulators of symbols, just as he is — and they don't understand what they're 'saying', just as he doesn't.”

I like the Chinese Room argument, partly because I’m ethnic Chinese and I know Chinese. So it is not an understatement when I say that Chinese is a highly nuanced language that is beyond mimicry by purely algorithmic manipulation. But I must admit that I would have been less certain if it were an English Parlor Argument put forth by a non-English speaking person.