Saturday, January 24, 2009

Funny Thought: Engineers Without Borders

A friend just told me about the organization called Engineers Without Borders.

Myself, I don't bother anyone.  I'm an Engineer Without Bothers.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Funny Thought: Getting a Tan

I don't understand what the big deal is about getting a tan. My wife got a Tan when she married me, and it didn't do HER any good.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Funny Thought: You Have Arrived

I have a GPS system that ends a guided journey with the phrase, "You have arrived at your destination".

In that context, my 9-year-old angel invented this riddle:

Q: What would the GPS system say when we reach a bomb site?
A: You have arrived at your detonation.

Funny Thought: Low-Grade Flu

I caught a low-grade flu earlier this week.

That's what happens when a flu doesn't study before a test.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Funny Thought: How to Exchange Money for Food

I often joke that I'm so spoilt by the free food in Google I can no longer survive in the outside world because I've lost the ability to exchange money for food.

There was precisely one day, 18 May 2005, when the Google cafe ran out of food during dinner. The next morning, I wrote this useful instructional email for my coworkers:

We did not have enough food in the Googleplex at dinner last night. I could have starved to death. Fortunately, a long time ago, the Ancients did not have dinner at work too, so they developed the tradition of going to town to exchange money for food. In order to survive the evening, I was forced to learn and practice the Art of the Ancients.

It turns out, it wasn't so bad. You just have to learn a few important points:

1. Know where to acquire food.
Not all townsfolks will give you food. A skillful forager learns to recognize the subtle signs. Townsfolks who are willing to exchange food for your money would let you know by putting up a large yellow 'M' (for "Meal"?) outside their buildings. Do not seek food from Office Depot.

2. Learn the language of exchange.
Townsfolks use an unique language to execute the exchange of food and money. Do not go into an establishment and say, "Here is money, give me food, woman!". Such is the way of the unskilled forager. Instead, use this holy mantra, inscribed in the Ancient Scriptures:

"Hamburger, fries and coke. And supersize me!"

3. The exchange.
Keep giving the townsfolk money, until she stops looking at you funny. At that point, you know you have given her enough money for her to be willing to surrender her food. In my case, she gave me some money back, even after I got her food. I don't know why. It must be my good looks. My good looks inspire peace-making instincts in townsfolks, especially the female ones.

4. Find a corner, eat, and get back to work.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Meng in the News: Searching for enlightenment

Searching for enlightenment
Is Google's 'school of personal growth' a spiritual boon or corporate fig leaf?
Ed Halliwell, Thursday 15 January 2009 15.00 GMT

Business initiatives trumpeted as selfless efforts to boost human welfare understandably evoke cynicism. The conflict between the profit motive and talk of employee wellbeing seems too tense to be soothed by a few in-house yoga classes, the traditional giant cheques handed out at local schools, or office recycling schemes.

So no doubt the news that Google is offering training to foster employees' spiritual growth will be met with some disdain, especially as this could well be the first example of a major modern corporation taking staff development into the transpersonal arena.

The story has emerged from a presentation made by Chade-Meng Tan, a former software engineer who now heads up the company's "school of personal growth", one of four faculties operating as Google University in a street adjacent to the firm's main Silicon Valley base. Speaking at the "Happiness and its Causes" conference in San Francisco, Tan suggested that the school's ethos could be a blueprint for workplace education. "Google wants to help Googlers grow as human beings on all levels," he said, "emotional, mental, physical and 'beyond the self'."

It is the final ingredient in this formula which is striking – Tan is a Buddhist, and the idea of people growing "beyond the self" sounds like an allusion to the Buddhist notion of "interdependent arising" – characterised by the insight that what we experience as "me" is not a separate, solid, unchanging entity but a fluid, evolving process that is inextricably connected to and interacting with the whole web of existence. This appears to be reflected in the courses on offer at the school, which includes classes on "the neuroscience of empathy" led by Stanford psychologist Philippe Goldin, as well as instruction in mindfulness meditation from Zen teacher Norman Fischer, who has been dubbed "the abbot of Google".

Google have otherwise remained coy about the curriculum, apparently forbidding Tan from giving interviews about it at the conference. Perhaps this reticence isn't surprising – aside from the usual objections of tokenism and hypocrisy (preaching openness does seem a bit rich in the light of Google's much-derided accommodation of Chinese internet censorship), charges are likely to include everything from surreptitious religious preaching to overindulgence in new-age flim-flam at the cost of better pay.

Nevertheless, given the choice between an employer that believes in and is willing to stump up for programmes aimed at employee enlightenment, and those for whom training is a tired series of numbing health and safety workshops, I know who I'd prefer to work for. With its emphasis on ensuring a creative environment – massage rooms, games consoles, exercise bikes and so on – Google seems to understand that far from being a PR sop, the provision of space and time for ideas and learning is essential for innovation, from which it will ultimately benefit.

The emphasis on evidence-based disciplines such as neuroscience and psychology suggests that the school's approach is based on the rigours of science rather than the superstition of church or crystal ball. At a time when many traditional religious institutional forms are associated with war, superstition, or scandal, or are failing to adapt to 21st-century life, it may be that our continued evolution is more likely to be spurred by organisations with a track record of cutting-edge services that improve the quality of lives and relationships.

This should not be a shock to Buddhists, whose tradition is not a revealed religion but more a set of observations and suggestions, which, while retaining their essence, naturally morph with their cultural surroundings. As the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche puts it:
As this wisdom mixes with the culture, psychology and language of a different country, new forms of expressing that same wisdom naturally come into being.
It seems that in the west, it is mixing most creatively with the fields of science, technology and communications – another example of the commercial appropriation of "interdependent arising" being the recent Orange "I Am Everyone" adverts.

Whether the Google initiative leads to further innovation, greater wellbeing and continued success, or turns into a cloak for materialistic greed, will depend largely on the company's ability to sustain a skilful and compassionate modus operandi in the midst of a corporate world dominated by self-interest. Having made its fortune through improving networks, it might understand better than most firms the glaring implications of interdependence - that sustained abundance is only possible through willingness to share it with others.

As to its capacity for wisely acting on that understanding and resisting the allure of corporate egotism – the very antithesis of going "beyond the self" – that very much remains to be seen.

Funny Thought: When I Grow Up

At the age of 38, I finally figured out what I when to be when I grow up.

When I grow up, I want to be some combination of Warren Buffett, Barack Obama, and the Dalai Lama: A calm, highly intelligent, deeply wise and compassionate Nobel Peace Prize-winning multi-billionaire leader of the free world with a good sense of humor.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Random Thought: Egoless Ego

I have three insights about doing great things and achieving major breakthroughs, and they all turn out to be contradictions.

Exhilarating Discomfort

Making a commitment to achieve a breakthrough is very exciting, but very uncomfortable.  I discovered that  the journey itself is also perpetually uncomfortable.  In breakthrough land, it feels uncomfortable ALL the time.

The biggest sources of that discomfort are constant ambiguity, and the constant threat of total absolute failure.  When we're going for breakthroughs, we're in totally uncharted territory.  There are no clear roles, no models, and even when there are clear metrics, there is no certainty that those metrics are even remotely reasonable.  There is also a voice constantly nagging me that all that effort could be entirely for naught.  My peers doing their prescribed day jobs will get their promotions and recognitions etc, while I could end up with absolutely nothing to show for.

The best analogy I can think of is the effort to find a "northwest passage".  The goal was very clear, find a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Canadian arctic.  And there are clear milestones, you know when you're exactly halfway successful, and so on.  But even with all that certainty in metrics, there were many people known in history merely as those who died trying whose names I don't even remember.

The journey is very exhilarating, but it turned out that the discomfort didn't stop the moment I made the leap, the discomfort is perpetual.

Egoless Ego

Living a breakthrough simultaneously makes diametrically opposite demands on one's ego.

On one hand, you need to have enough of an ego to tell yourself, "This challenge is huge, huge, but I can meet it".  On the other hand, breakthroughs require full commitment from other people, so your success is always dependent on the mercy of others.  You can only get to the destination on the generosity, kindness, commitment, expertise and effort of others.  So you need to have enough humility to acknowledge how little you matter in the grand scheme of things.

There is another source of polarly opposite demands on one's ego, connected to the "Exhilarating Discomfort" theme.  On one hand, you need enough of an ego to know that your effort could make a very important difference.  On the other hand, you find that success (or lack thereof) is beyond your control (there is no guarantee that you won't be one of those who died failing), so to play this game, you need to have enough humility to accept that lack of control.

Selfless Glory

I'm beginning to increasingly believe that breakthrough achievements require a state of mind that can resolve the contradiction of "egoless ego".

I think it goes beyond self-awareness and self-regulation (in Emotional Intelligence) and "egoless mind" (in Buddhism).  I don't know the words for it.  I've seen it hinted at in the words and actions of wise men, but I'm not aware of any detailed treatment of it.  Eg, Gandhi lived it better than anybody else I know.  Eg, Covey hinted at it in the "interdependence vs independence vs dependence" discussion in Seven Habits.  Eg, Thich Nhat Hanh promotes proactive global social action while living a simple life of peaceful mindfulness.

For lack of a term that I'm aware of, I call it "Selfless Glory".  It's a mind that seeks glory without the glory. It's the state of mind of peaceful stillness surrounded by powerful motion.

I'm beginning to think that cultivating this mind is a necessary but insufficient condition towards truly powerful breakthroughs.

I don't know how this mind can be cultivated.  I suspect having a strong sense of mission is necessary.  It's probably also necessary to have compassion, generosity and non-attachment.  But I don't know, I'm only a novice at this.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Funny Thought: Semi-Randomness

Meng's self-discovery of the day:  It turns out that when I do something "semi-randomly", the extend of randomness is the part that is random.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Funny Thought: David Copperfield

I saw David Copperfield in Las Vegas in 2007.  But before I could ask him to take a photo with me, he disappeared.

Funny Thought: How to prepare for the collapse of civilization

1. The Ultimate Hedging Strategy
Buy a piece of furtile land with access to fresh water. Learn to farm. Stock up on ammunition. Lots. Invest in making your neighbours like you enough to not want you dead. Bury pieces of gold in your backyard (small pieces, easy to make change). Stay close to friends you trust, in case you need to start a new nation. Value friends who are physically strong and naturally charismatic leaders. They will become the new warlords, and you want to be on their side.

2. Have a religion
It won't change anything, but may make you feel better. And if you have enough charisma, you may even be able to mobilize gullible people in the name of religion, so you can protect yourself from the physically strong and naturally charismatic guy who became a new warlord whom you forgot to value as a friend in 2009. 

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Funny Thought: Standing Up for America

It turns out that the CIA has been making friends in Afghanistan by giving Viagra to Afghan chieftians.

Q: How do you tell which Afghan chieftains are American allies?

A: They are the ones standing up for America.

(Alternative joke:  "We gave them the choice of the blue or red pills, and they always chose the blue pill, Sir")

Random Thought: The Prognosis for China?

I can't make up my mind what the prognosis is for China. There are 2 diametrically opposing hypotheses, both seem possible and reasonable.

One hypothesis says China will prosper and become the biggest, richest, most powerful and most advanced economy in the world. For all the obvious reasons, Chinese people work hard and save hard, they are great business creators and model workers, and there are a lot of them with access to lots of oversea Chinese people with money. Historically, China spent most of human history being the biggest, richest, most powerful and most advanced economy in the world (one could even argue that the last few hundred years, where China is not the top nation in the world, is a historical anomaly). Also, anywhere in the world there is a Chinese community, they prosper economically.

The other hypothesis says China is a time bomb waiting to implode upon itself. Again, for all the obvious reasons. China's current growth is already unsustainable on many levels. Ecologically, they are poisoning their land, air and water on a massive scale, drying up their ground water, and turning large expanses of land into deserts. Economically, a growing China is so hungry for resources that a growing China is incompatible with a growing world, China would just use up most of the world's available resources or drive up their prices to levels unsustainable for the whole world. Socially, there is a huge amount of social and economic tension waiting to blow up. Historically, social unrest and/or regime change happens pretty often, so China is no historical stranger to massive internal implosion. Except this time, it would be much worse than any other time in Chinese history, since there had never been so many people, competing for so little resources, and with the land and water so poisoned. And, oh, nuclear weapons.

What gives? What are your opinions?

My best guess is: All of the Above.

In the short term, China would be fine. By some estimates, China needs to grow by at least 6% to 7% to ward off social unrest, and the Chinese govt can and will make that happen, most likely with massive infrastructure project, which Chinese people are historically extremely good at (Two words: Great Wall).

In the medium term (10 to 30 years), there will be 2 Chinas. There will be more people in the middle class than there are people in America, and there will be a small number of very rich (most likely very corrupted) families. But the middle class will still be significantly outnumbered by the poor. For a variety of reasons (eg, the govt no longer has the resources for massive infrastructure projects), growth will slow, and many of the poor will remain poor for a longer time. At that time, both hypotheses will be true at the same time. There will be 2 Chinas. A rich, prosperous and powerful China, and a starving, poisoned China waiting to implode massively, living next to each other, maintained only by massive social and political oppression.

Long term (30+ years), most likely, very bad news. A massive and hugely dense human population is almost always, and almost everywhere, a very bad thing.