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.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Four Noble Truths

My wife is a devout Buddhist. Since she does not drive, I have been her personal chauffeur for all her Buddhist activities, be they attending Dharma talks, mantra chanting sessions, and Buddhist camps, both in town and out of town.

One perennial feature of any Buddhist center is the free distribution of Buddhist books, usually Chinese but sometimes English translation as well. They are known as, in literal English translation, items for fostering links, which also include other forms such as audio tapes, video tapes, bookmarks, and posters. The purpose is to disseminate the teachings of Buddha as widely as possible. They are free because the production cost is borne by generous donations by the adherents.

As time goes by, my wife’s collection of Buddhist books started to spill beyond a single book shelf, which led to the purchase of new book selves, the DIY kind which took me a while to assemble. It was during one of her reshelving exercises that she spotted several English texts and handed them to me, knowing that I’m kind of an avid reader.

I started with The Four Noble Truths by Venerable Ajahn Sumedho (Amaravathi Publications, 1992). The Four Noble Truths comprised the first sermon that the Buddha gave to his five companions when he attained enlightenment at the age of 35. And they are:
  • There is suffering;

  • There is a cause or origin of suffering;

  • There is an end of suffering; and

  • There is a path out of suffering, the Eightfold Path whose elements are Right Understanding and Right Aspiration (under Wisdom), Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood (under Morality) and Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration (under Concentration).

The book goes into detail on what each Noble Truth entails, and how they can be learned, understood, and applied to ordinary things in our daily lives. They are, hence, a lifetime’s reflection, and “require an ongoing attitude of vigilance” to use them as “the context for a lifetime of examination”. The key words to infuse these insights into our everyday life are “to reflect rather than to grasp”. One good way to achieve reflection is not to label everything in the first person such as “I’m suffering.” Instead, say “there is suffering” as is the way the first Noble Truth is stated.

So in that sense, it goes beyond “intellectual understanding”, which is merely knowing and able to regurgitate what each term means. Inherent in following the Eightfold path is trying things out, and thinking out of the box, to borrow a management buzzterm, the aim being to develop a mind that “moves around, watches, investigates, considers, wonders and reflects”.

Interspersed with personal anecdotes, the book is indeed easy to read, rendering the profound Buddha teachings enshrined in the Four Noble Truths that much easier to relate, and grasp (pardon the pun).

Venerable Ajahn Sumedho (Ajahn is the Thai word for “teacher”) admonishes us to be alert to the way things are in consonance with the essence of Buddhist practice that is very immediate to the here and now. In his words, “the present moment is what we can actually observe: we can't observe tomorrow yet, and we can only remember yesterday.”

I don’t profess to have understood fully what Venerable Ajahn Sumedho has managed to “simplify” for our sake at the first read. What with the fact that my mind has been conditioned to follow a linear track made up of sequential steps. But the more I read, muse, mull, and hopefully, ruminate, the more I’m thinking that they do make sense and are not complicated enough to be adopted as my life’s precepts toward attaining an affliction-free state of mind.

Read here for another good find of Buddhist books, as I continue my foray into the Buddhist realm of self enlightenment.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Diaspora: Taking Flight or Picking Fight?

The US election is officially over, and the Democrats now own the majority in both the House and the Senate, effectively relegating President Bush to that akin to a lame duck. This is a term used to describe a leader who is hamstrung in seeing his agenda through.

The institution of Congress is a good means of check and balance to prevent the tendency for excesses by an opinionated leader. However, the potential for stalemate where decision making is mired in bipartisan ideologies is similarly great.

On balance, having no decision made is still a preferable outcome to one that is bulldozed through for expediency, worse if it is for personal gratification, rather than the long-term good of the nation.

In comparison, Malaysia has been ruled by the same party, which is more of a coalition of race-based parties, since independence. The stability that ensued has enabled the country to develop by leaps and bounds, the infrastructure laid down having catalyzed further development through the multiplier effect.

However, as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. The de facto one-party rule has also given rise to an aura of invincibility with its attendant erosion of transparency and accountability. It has come to a stage where the incumbents are so deeply entrenched that nepotism and other ills associated with an authoritarian rule are taking its toll on the country’s economy.

Some of those elected have forgotten that they are the people’s voices, voices of reason and conscience, and are busily engaging in, or rather fixating on, a spree of self-enrichment.

They become a special class of citizens, flouting laws with abandon, instead of enforcing them, the proverbial fox guarding the hen.

Sure, here and there, now and then, rallying calls, while clarion, for reform, a politically incorrect term not too long ago, can be heard through the blogosphere and other alternative (read as non-mainstream) news media since the government has an invisible hand in the mainstream mass media. But alas, they are like the lone voices in the wilderness, hardly raising a murmur.

Those with means and resources at their disposal and seeing that any efforts to turn around the dire situation are an exercise in futility, head toward the exit door en masse. Before that ponderous decision was made, some did agonize between staying back for a perceived bleak future and leaving loved ones behind. But eventually personal security, or rather the security of those who come after, prevails.

Some would say these people flee, or they prefer to be treated as second class citizens by somebody they deem as superior. Perhaps emboldened by the democratic regime in their adopted countries or they still feel a lingering loyalty to their birth-land, some of those who are on the diaspora bandwagon have elected to join the chorus of discontent, using the Internet as a platform to heap criticisms on the incumbent, hoping to galvanize public opinion as a potent tool to redress the maladministration.

Then again they too have to suffer the indignity of being labeled as armchair critics, having no moral right to dissent in absentia.

Ultimately, one is responsible for one’s own action, be it staying, fleeing, or just being fatalistic. At least those who are seeking greener pastures else where have taken matter into their own hands, and they would have to live with the consequences one way or the other.

So decide and make the best of whatever it is. The important thing is wherever you're, in your own way, make this a better world for humanity, for the environment, and for all the sentient beings.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Fever

Today, Nov 7, is Election Day. Here in Florida, the election will decide the number one guy in the state (the governor) all the way to the local county commissioners. For this year, both the gubernatorial candidates are from the Tampa Bay area, assuring that the next governor will call Tampa Bay area his home.

Compared to Malaysia, the election fever here seems a tad subdued. There is no overhead banners strung between lamp posts; no fiery orations using hand-held speakers; no spectators/supporters spilling onto the road, and no policemen standing guard at conspicuous places. In their place, there are cardboard posters staked to the ground at road junctions, nothing aerial; moderated public debates among/between candidates, usually carried live on TV; and volunteers ushering in voters at the gates.

Most of the candidates are fielded by the two parties: the Republicans and the Democrats, with a handful of independents. I’ve never really understood what the two parties actually stand for, save for the hazy notion that the Republicans are conservatives while the Democrats are the liberals. So I decided to do a bit of Internet sleuthing to find out more.

First I visited the official website of the Republican Party, Now, GOP has always been the moniker for the Republicans but I’ve never known what it stands for since it does not feature R in it. Until today.

According to the website, it started off as “Grand Old Party” dating back to the 1880s. Along the way others pretenders appeared: Gallant Old Party, GO-Party. Then in the 1970s, it was back to the original term: Grand Old Party. Grand it may be, but not necessarily old as the Democrat Party is older.

Some historical tidbits.
  • The Republican Party was formed in the early 1850's by anti-slavery activists.

  • Abraham Lincoln was elected the Party’s first President in 1860.

  • The symbol for the Party is the Elephant.

  • The Party color is red in the sense that red states are states that have voted predominantly for the Republican presidential candidate, a color scheme becoming in vogue following the 2000 presidential election.

  • The magazine of the Republican National Committee is Rising Tide.

  • Some of the Republican Presidents during our lifetime are The Bush father and son, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon.

Now over to the Democrat Party.
  • Touted as the "party for the common man", the Democrat party was founded by Thomas Jefferson in the late 18th Century who went on to become the Party’s first President.

  • The Party’s blog is called Kicking Ass.

  • The party is represented by the animal Donkey (Funny thing is I read about this in the GOP website but did not find such reference at the Democrats website but I must admit it was just a cursory search).

  • The Party color is blue in analogy to the color red for the Republican Party.

  • Some of the more recent Democrat Presidents include Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and JF Kennedy.

Perhaps more telling is the domain name of the respective websites: dot com for the Republicans and dot org for the Democrats. In common usage, com stands for company, which means making money, the bottom line. On the other hand, org is associated with non-profit organizations that are people-oriented. By design or coincidence? You tell me.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Good Riddance, the 2006 Hurricane Season

We are now into November, traditionally the last month of the official hurricane season that sees very little action based on trends in the past years. Until now, the hurricane season has been very uneventful, nary a whimper, which is a kind of anti-climax given the ferocious 2004 and 2005 seasons. This may sound callous but people do get conditioned and may become fatalistic to past calamities, if they happen in succession.

However, we have been blessed since we arrived at Tampa three years ago. For the past three years, Tampa has been spared the full brunt of a land-falling hurricane. The most we felt was some windy condition and elsewhere some local flooding due to a combination of storm-induced high bay water level and rainfall-driven high flow from the hinterland.

One such vulnerable area is the Bayshore Boulevard that skirts along Hillsborough Bay located on the upper part of Tampa Bay. The bay area provides sufficiently long over-water distance (called fetch) for the wind to whip up the water mass such that it piles up against the shoreline. In addition to inundating low-lying areas, the high water elevation also impedes inland drainage through storm drains that connect to the bay, a phenomenon termed the backwater effect since water will always flow to a lower spot by gravity. I managed to capture a manifestation of this effect during a post-storm excursion that I took along the Bayshore Boulevard.

The following image seems to indicate the upward issuance of a bubbling stream through the middle of the road. The resulting flow then gravitates toward the Bayshore Boulevard as seen in the image.

The frothing water actually is located at a manhole where the metal cover has been forced open by the water pressure underneath. The buildup in water pressure is in turn caused by water backing up from the underground drainage conduit that drains into the Hillsborough Bay. The manhole acts as a relief valve that dissipates the pent-up pressure.

I can think of a couple of reasons for this infrastructure being put under stress. One is related to hinterland development resulting in more paved/hardened surface. Hence, rain that previously could have soaked into the ground is now captured as a surface runoff that collects in the road-side drains that empty into the storm drain that in turn debouches into the bay. That increase in the volume of surface runoff within a short time overwhelms the design capacity of the storm drain as an effective conveyance.

Then there is a more regional effect that has been the subject of much debate: global warming, which induces a rise in sea level due to a combination of glacier melting and heat-induced expansion of the ocean water as a consequence of a rise in ambient temperature. When that storm drain was designed some years back, it was based on a certain downstream water level in the bay that controls its discharge capacity. When this downstream control level goes up, the discharge capacity of the same storm drain decreases, thus reducing its effectiveness in removing water that flows into it.

I will blog more about global warming and my take of the entrenched positions of the proponents on both sides of the controversy in another post. For now, I'm glad that the hurricane season of 2006 has not lived up to its full potential, but I'm too much of a realist to think that the lull will continue into next year. However, that's next year and I will savor every moment that this hurricane-free season offers.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Moments in Time: Seeing the Clouds Your Way

Do you know how to freeze that ever elusive time? One way is to capture it at the moment as a still picture. However, the stillness may open a floodgate of nostalgia, making us reliving the past with relish or rancor based on the frozen moment. Or, it will just let your imagination run wild, seeing the same form but evoking varying mental pictures as the eye of the mind sees it.

I consider myself to be a novice photographer, contented with using the simplest camera available, you know, the auto-focus, the just point and shoot kind. Thankfully camera technology has advanced to such a foolproof stage that unless one has jittery hands, it is almost impossible to mess up a kodak moment.

So armed with a Canon PowerShot A75, I've been shooting various scenes of nature, in between candid moment-like human-centric portrayals which is usually the preoccupation. Here I would like to share some of these shots that I thought would help illustrate the whims of Nature, with my take immediately above the respective images. Here it goes.

The ominous cloud formation with grey undertone, portending the imminency of a storm. The view is eastward toward the Hillsborough Bay from the Bayshore Boulevard, a thoroughfare skirting the bayside (hence the name). This is kind of the equivalent of the Strip in South Tampa where million-dollar homes and mansions line the landside of the road. In terms of the spectrum of human emotions, this would correspond to one who is about to throw a tantrum, or worst, a rage.

The torquiose sky is filled with white clouds of different stripes and shapes. This is a view of the Tampa Bay from the W Courtney Campbell Causeway looking southward. Carefree. To each one's own. But a grayish tinge seems to line the bottom of the clouds, injecting some caution, some tentativeness. This is sort of reflective of a guardedly optimistic mood.

A continuous swath of white cloud across the sky, like a contrail from a giant plane sweeping across the airspace, or a banner waiting to be inked. This is a view of the Hillsborough River near Temple Terrace. It could signify a contemplative moment where all judgment is suspended, just mulling and musing in a continual flow.

How often do you stare into the horizon, or into the sky if you are not at the water's edge? The vastness, the expansiveness would so overwhelm the beholder such that all earthly afflictions seem to pale into insignificance. This is the view one would be able to discern if one were to take a step back from the hustle and bustle of the daily grind. If you're up to it, you can also play trick with your mind using the various cloud formations to concoct a multitude of mental images that would only make sense to you.

You don't have to be like me, sharing some snippets of my mental images in a blog. The important thing is to engage in the act, and be at peace with yourself.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Hardwallers vs Softwallers

In nature, they are hard shell animals and soft shell animals. The former includes tortoises and turtles while the latter would include snails. The same dichotomy is seen in the sea where there are different kinds of shell fishes (prawns and crabs as opposed to oysters and mussels).

A similar arrangement is evident in an office setting as well. But here it is by human design rather than by evolution or heredity. Walk into a typical office and one will see the following spatial arrangement:
  • A central area comprising enclosures demarcated by softboard partitions into individual work areas. The partitions are up to neck level and one can literally see heads popping up whenever there is any form of commotion.

  • Then lining along the perimeter are rooms with glass windows and doors. Most are usually left open unless privacy is desired by the dwellers.

Hence, the monikers hardwallers, for the room inhabitors, and the softwallers, for those who reside in the cubicles, two terms that I picked up recently.

As for who gets to be the hardwallers, the criterion is invariably seniority, not necessarily with the firm, but based on the length of working experience. So a recent recruit but with experience can be assigned a room. Similarly, employees who have chalked up a sufficient length of service would also be upgraded from a softwaller to a hardwaller if a vacancy opens up.

The way I see it, there is no difference between the two in terms of work since both categories work for the same firm. However, as a matter of practicality, hardwallers can entertain visitors (mostly two at a time) in their “office” whereas softwallers would have to adjourn to a meeting room unless it is a brief encounter whereby the visitors will spill over into the corridor.

Also, hardwallers can engage in “sensitive” telephone conversation by simply closing the door while softwallers would normally walk out of the office for such an eventuality, provided the call is received on a cellphone.

In my experience working in the US in the private sector, whether a softboard partition or a hardwood panel partition right up to the ceiling is just a form of marking out individual work spaces. There is no deliberate attempt to equate the type of work enclosure to the position of the worker in the office hierarchy. Likewise the workers themselves interact freely and find their own particular niche more as a personal preference rather than hemmed in by the rigid organizational structure.

However, the office dynamics is likely different in the government sector. Again based on my personal experience but not in US, the attachment to the pecking order of the type of office space one is allotted is omnipresent, and is savored by those who have made it, it being the promotion. The chain of command is layered and is not be trifled with. Here, the type of room, the area, the kind of furniture, and the kind of d├ęcor, are all subtle or ostentatious, depending on one’s point of view, display of the office rank.

While the view from the inside may be different, meaning the occupants may not have harbored such an association, outsiders do perceive the link as a status symbol and act accordingly. I think such hierarchical structure, both in terms of the office position and the privileges/perks that go with it, has its origin in the colonial past and has outgrown its usefulness in the knowledge era of today.

In the fast-paced work environment of today where information abounds and moves at a break-neck speed, a worker is a nucleus in one’s own way in the sense that one is relatively self-reliant as far as carrying out the incidental duties of completing an assigned task such as making the contact, preparing the communication, searching for the relevant files, and writing and typing the documents. A smart office would provide the necessary office equipment for uninterrupted use by the workers. Gone are the days of typists, file searchers, and office peons.

The computer has become the one-in-all work station, which is the common denominator for all workers, be they hard- or softwallers. A worker’s domain knowledge has become the distinguishing element of his raison d’etre in the firm. And the mission of the firm is to leverage these knowledge workers into strategic collaboration for the common good of the firm. So the monikers hard- and softwallers are mere fodder for office banter by bruised egos.

I'm a hardwaller by the way. But I also consider myself a knowledge worker. So my transition from a government bureaucracy to a private firm where flatness, structure-wise, is the order of the day has been a smooth one.