Thursday, April 30, 2009

Meng in the News: Buddha in the Googleplex

Buddha in the Googleplex

The search engine’s “Jolly Good Fellow” brings the dharma to Silicon Valley

By Joan Duncan Oliver
Summer 2009

SEARCH "GOOGLE AND BUDDHISM" on—what else?—Google, and it’s a safe bet that none of the 1,690,000 entries will cite the Internet behemoth as a stop on the Buddha Way. Yet amazingly, thanks to a 38-year-old software engineer named Chade-Meng Tan, the dharma appears to have infiltrated the Googleplex, the ur–search engine’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Meng, as everyone calls him (“Americans can’t do names with more than one syllable,” the Singapore native quips), firmly denies that he’s introducing Buddhism into corporate life, however. “I’m not interested in bringing Buddhism to Google,” he states. “I am interested in helping people at Google find the key to happiness.”

No small goal, but Meng is well positioned to deliver. After eight years as a systems designer, he now heads the company’s School of Personal Growth, one of four in-house schools comprising Google University. Google—named Fortune magazine’s #1 Best Place to Work for two years running—is jokingly called the Emerald City for its menu of perks that includes free gourmet meals, subsidized massages, volleyball games, and endless-wave swimming pools. But the personal growth program marks perhaps the first time a major corporation has added spiritual development to the list. “Google wants Googlers to grow as human beings on all levels—emotional, mental, physical, and beyond the self,” Meng says.

The concept isn’t as new agey as it sounds. There’s a practical side to developing well-rounded employees: they’re likely to be more creative and thereby contribute more to the bottom line. Since it started up in early 2008, the school has offered a variety of courses designed to expand employees’ horizons, from one on sleep taught by Stanford Medical School professor Dr. William Dement—a pioneering researcher who founded the world’s first sleep lab—to one of the most popular, the history of wine.

Among the initial offerings was a course on mindfulness-based Emotional Intelligence. So far, some 200 of the 20,000 or so Googlers at the Mountain View campus have been through the seven-week class, which covers the practice (and neuroscience) of meditation, as well as instruction in things like mindful listening and mindful emailing.

Known as SIY—for “Search Inside Yourself”—was developed in consultation with psychologist and author Daniel Goleman (who popularized the concept of emotional intelligence, or EI), along with Mirabai Bush, founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and Zen priest Norman Fischer, spiritual director of the Everyday Zen Foundation. Fischer continues to teach the course with Meng.

And self-development is only part of the story: just as important is “beyond the self’” training. The SIY curriculum includes, for example, modules on empathy and social skills. “The full development of a person has two aspects,” Meng says. “The intrapersonal aspect is wisdom; the interpersonal is compassion.” Spiritual development, he emphasizes, “has to include both creating inner peace and happiness and giving service and compassion to the world.”

Meng practices what he preaches. He established the Tan Teo Charitable Foundation in 2005 to promote peace, liberty, and enlightenment, and along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he’s a founding patron of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Meng is also indirectly responsible for introducing Google’s top executives to Dr. Larry Brilliant, the physician who heads, the company’s philanthropic arm. Brilliant, who helped eradicate smallpox in India and cofounded the Seva Foundation to address blindness in the developing world, was one of Meng’s invited speakers at the Googleplex.

Meng has also brought in a number of well-known Buddhist teachers, including Sharon Salzberg, Lama Surya Das, Matthieu Ricard, and the creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn. Meng’s own teacher, Shaila Catherine, founder of Insight Meditation South Bay in Mountain View, teaches a weekly class.

BEHIND ALL THIS is Meng the man. After graduating from a Catholic high school and Nanyang Technical University in Singapore and becoming an award-winning computer engineer, Meng came to the United States in 1998 for graduate study at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In America, his inquisitive mind found a natural home.

Joining Google in 1999, Meng worked on a variety of improvements to the search engine, including adapting it for Chinese-language use. Today, around Google headquarters, he’s equally well known for the wall of snapshots—titled “All the Presidents’ Meng”—that picture him grinning broadly alongside more than 200 political leaders, movie and media stars, and other assorted dignitaries. Here is Meng cozying up to Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Muhammad Ali, Robin Williams, Tom Brokaw, Jane Goodall, Jane Fonda, and Black-Eyed Peas frontman, to name a few. Asked if there’s anyone else he’d like to invite to Google, Meng quickly names the Dalai Lama. “I think he’d have fun,” Google’s unofficial host observes.

Fun has been central to the Google ethos since its 1998 start-up, and in that respect, Meng fits right in. In fact, he’s something of a wag. His business card lists his title as “Jolly Good Fellow,” a play on the “Fellow” title bestowed on top-performing Google engineers (though not on Meng). His personal website, “Meng’s Little Space” (, cites his motto, “Life is too important to be taken seriously,” along with the unabashed self-assessment “As you might have guessed, I’m quite a funny guy.”

Back in 1995, Meng launched one of the first Buddhist websites, calling it “What do you think, my friend?” It includes classic texts, Buddhist tales, and—in keeping with what he describes as its “highly personal and practical approach”—questions and answers on the dharma, “contributions from ordinary people,” and—surprise!— Buddhist humor. Meng is thinking of changing the name of the site to the Jolly Bodhi, with the tagline “Because Buddhism should be fun.”

Even about his own practice, Meng can’t resist cracking a joke. Asked if his wife and nine-year-old daughter are also practicing Buddhists, he says, “My daughter and I sit for two minutes a day. That’s the full attention span of a child and an engineer.”

For all his wisecracks, however, Meng is a dedicated—if unorthodox—practitioner. Raised a cultural Buddhist, he was 21 before a talk by Sangye Khadro, an American nun living in Singapore, hooked him on the dharma. He studied with various teachers, eventually settling into a Vipassana practice.

Last year, Meng did a monthlong solo retreat—at Google headquarters: “I found a secluded corner and meditated.” As the retreat wore on, he noticed that “colors became more vibrant; I was able to hear my heart beat; I was able to differentiate between the moment of sensation and the moment of perception.” Above all, he experienced “an aftertaste of happiness throughout the day.”

One time after sitting, Meng recalls, “everybody looked attractive— not physically beautiful, but I liked them even more than before. I have a theory: this is the origin of social mind.” He likens it to what he observed as his daughter was growing up: “First she learned to smile and liked everyone, then she developed shyness, stopped smiling, and had a fear of people. Social mind develops between learning to smile and fearing people.”

Meng calls social mind “the foundation of compassion. If you like everyone you meet, then you want to help everybody. I had a glimpse of that without going to the mountain,” he continues. “There’s a Chinese saying: ‘The small retreat is in the forest and the big retreat is in the city.’”

Meng’s plans for the School of Personal Growth include introducing a course on happiness and one on shamatha (calm abiding). “The workplace is the best place to enlighten adults,” he insists. “To do that, you have to align people’s worldly interests with the interests of business.” The precedent lies in corporate exercise programs: “Just as we can help people get fit at work, we can help them get enlightened.” Meng foresees a day when every company will have a School of Personal Growth.

So is teaching meditation how he plans to save the world? “I’m not saving the world,” Meng corrects. “I’m trying to save the world. I have this image that I’m rowing my boat in the ocean, and the waves are very high. I can’t see over the waves, and I don’t know if the boat is going in the right direction. All I know is that I’m rowing. The only thing I can control is trying.”

From all appearances, he’s right on course. 

Joan Duncan Oliver, Tricycle’s reviews editor, is the editor of Commit to Sit, an anthology of articles from Tricycle, published by Hay House in March.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Funny Thought: Sleeping for Humanity

I discovered that my motivation to save the world is greatly affected by my physical energy level.

In the morning, after coffee, I'm full of confidence and nothing can stop me from bringing about world peace.  In the late evening after gym, I'm certain I'm powerless to do anything for humanity, I should instead just spend the rest of my life watching TV and playing golf.

Which is why I decided I should get more sleep.  I'm doing this for humanity.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Funny Thought: The Name of My Angel

I always refer to my daughter as "my angel".  My angel is perfect and protects me from harm.

People often ask me what my angel's name is.  It turns out, my angel's name is "Angel".

It just occurred to me that my angel has a convenient self-documenting name.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dan Siegel at Google

On Wednesday (4/22), Jenny and I had the pleasure of hosting Dr Dan Siegel at Google, where he delivered a talk on "Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation".  This was the first time Dan and I had met, but we felt like we've been old friends for many years.

Two things that most amazed me:

1. I'm amazed how much I learned in Dan's 1-hour talk.  I thought I knew a lot about the topic already, but once again, I learned that there's so much I don't even know that I don't know.

2. I'm amazed that the first time Dan even heard of Mindfulness meditation was 2003.  Given his expertise in the science and practice of personal transformation, I thought that Dan had been mediting forever like I have.  But no, his exposure to the practice was very recent.  Wow.

Anyway, here is the link to the YouTube video of the talk.

And here are the notes taken by my dear friend, Yvonne Ginsberg.

Yvonne's Notes (slightly edited by me)

Dr. Siegel's general theory of mind:

Mind is a process that monitors and regulates the flow of information (Here I presume he means sensory information)  The mind is not just embodied but it is also relational.  The mind is a regulatory process, utilizing measurement to monitor the regulatory process.  Monitoring and modifying are the two essential elements of regulation.  Mental Health is the balanced interaction of all the mental factors, by being able to see the mind (witness, with some step-back) and modify mental behavior effectively (presumably according to the outcome we want, or in relation to our highly held values/criteria).

Dr. Siegel asserts that there is such an entity called 'mind', and it has a specific set of interactions with the brain, and that he would map out these interactions as he described the physiology and functions of the different parts of the brain. 

To represent a model of the brain, he asked us to make a fist and wrap our thumb with our four fingers:

The wrist is the spine, 
the lower palm is the brain stem (location for fight/flight/freeze response) the tucked thumb is the mammalian lymbic cortex which appraises significance of events, motivates, organizes memory and affective issues related to attachment  (bonding in infancy).

The knuckles represent the neo-mammalian cortex which, at the back, processes the external world, and in front, images possibilities, plans --  the future.

Moving forward to the fingers, we come to the most complex functions of abstraction,ideas, generalizations. The pre-frontal cortex is uniquely human in that it generates stories, creativity, and anchors us in relationships

The mid-frontal (which includes the insula), where Dr, Siegel places 'mental health'.

Here is a list of 9 functions related to the mid-frontal cortex:

1. Regulation of body.
2. Attuned communication.  Attachment, mutual attunement, merging.
3. Balance of emotions:  enough that life has meaning, but not too much that life becomes chaotic.
4. The capacity to extinguish fear.
5. The ability to pause before you act ("response flexibility")
6. Autonoetic consciousness ("self-knowing awareness").  Connects representation of past, present and future.
7. Empathy -- be able to represent another's internal world.
8. Capacity for morality -- compassion, acting on highest principles and social good
9. Intuition -- representation of representation of body, hence having access to wisdom of the body

This mid pre-frontal area, referring back to the fist, is in actual contact with a very large part of the rest of the brain, and is one connection away, so to speak.  So he calls this the integrative part, or " a massively integrated part of the brain with the fiercest speed of connection

Mindfulness -- applied intentional attention -- enhances all these functions; and is finally most supportive
 of the mid pre-frontal. Dr. Siegel cited many research findings that show an ‘increase’ in this part of the brain as a result of extensive meditation.

states become traits
strengthening the integrative fibers of the brain  (with mindfulness)

And mindfulness practice has a profound effect on the anterior insula, which generates empathy.

Final statement, and argument for the mind's existence:  “The mind uses the brain to create itself."

Friday, April 10, 2009

Misc: Roger on BT

My baby brother, Roger, was quoted in a front page story of the Business Times.


Reality check for market rally

Despite the recent powerful rally by Singapore blue chips, yesterday’s pullback is making analysts wary of calling a bottom

8 April 2009

(SINGAPORE) The roller-coaster ride on the Singapore stock market continues. Thanks to the recent rally, most blue chips have put on weight, with many index stocks seeing double-digit gains over the past four weeks.

But yesterday’s sharp pull-back suggests that the blue chips led rally may be a false dawn, with analysts wary of calling a bottom at this point.

‘The lead economic indicators have not shown any sign that there is a bottoming or a recovery, or there are no concrete signs of that,’ said SIAS Research vice-president Roger Tan.

Some 25 of the 30 index stocks rose by double-digit percentages between March 9, a year’s low for the benchmark Straits Times Index (STI), and April 6.

The banks, with a hefty combined 26.7 per cent weighting on the STI, were among the biggest winners. After giving up some gains yesterday, shares of DBS and OCBC were still higher than their closings on March 9 by 36.9 per cent and 32.7 per cent. UOB was 27.8 per cent higher. Property counters also rebounded from their lows on March 9. Despite yesterday’s losses, CapitaLand shares have gained 43.6 per cent since March 9, City Developments 43 per cent and Hongkong Land Holdings 21.5 per cent.

The STI has risen some 27 per cent from March 9 before yesterday’s 2.4 per cent dive left it at 1,802.39 points.

In the view of SIAS Research’s Mr. Tan, this rally was not supported by fundamentals, and was due in part to some pent-up demand from investors who were waiting on the sidelines.

‘The last few weeks of upward trend was an extension of what I call a ‘hope and fear cycle’. With the economic data coming out and the G-20 meeting, governments will do more and these promises brought back the hope that markets may bottom out or recover earlier than expected,’ he said.

DMG & Partners Securities’ senior dealing director Gabriel Yap described the low of 1,456.95 points touched on March 9 as ‘one of the few inflexion points that could be part of a series of range-trading rallies’. At this point, the technical charts still look bearish in the near term, Kim Eng technical analyst Ken Tai noted.

He fears that this may be a bear trap, as was seen in the last leg of the bear market in 1998, where the market rebounded by 49 per cent within three months only to fall by the same magnitude over the next six months.

‘At this point, I’m not turning outright bullish,’ he added. ‘The recent rebound is part and parcel of short-covering . . . rather than the work of genuine investors, which I think are not in the market yet.’ 

Mr. Tai expects the bear market to last for another six months or so, with the STI forming a U-shape recovery. He thinks that the worst is over for the market, so investors should ‘look for stocks to buy, not to short’.

But the ride from here will be bumpy.

Some of these bumps may include corporate earnings as the quarterly reporting season kicks in this month, and the stress test of banks in the United States at the end of this month. Recent gains have made the market more vulnerable to a short-term correction, they say.

Mr. Yap of DMG said he is already expecting a 28-35 per cent fall in first-quarter earnings year on year for Singapore companies. A below-expectations set of results would stoke the market on the downside.

‘This downturn, which lasts 17 months, is the longest since 1937 and 1981. Where we go from here will depend on the news that will come out,’ he said. ‘But you must be positioned whether it is a bear market trap or it’s a turnaround for the market.’

Investors should be more willing to add risk to their portfolio by adopting a higher beta-sensitive portfolio going forward, Mr. Yap said, citing highly interest rate-sensitive stocks such as banks, property and Reits, and oil palm stocks such as Noble Group, Olam and Wilmar. 

Mr. Tan of SIAS Research predicts that a worst-case scenario could see the STI sliding towards 1,300 again. 

‘But there is no need to avoid equities,’ he added. Investors who are taking on a long-term view can consider dollar-cost averaging. This is where an investor works his way into a position by slowly buying small amounts and spreading the costs over a longer period of time. 

Alternatively, investors can consider buying put warrants to hedge against the downside, he said.

Mr. Tan still advocates a defensive strategy with telcos and banks and recommends buying the STI exchange-traded fund, which capitalises on potential gains in blue chips and involves lower risk than buying into individual stocks.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Funny Thought: Google Achieves Breakthrough in Numerical Genetics

Something I wrote back in 2003. ("Chen Yiming" is my name pronounced in Chinese).


Google Achieves Breakthrough in Numerical Genetics

by Chen Yiming
Staff Writer, Mengistan Times
April 1, 2003.

Researchers at Google announced on Tuesday, their breakthrough discovery that 8 and infinity are 98.6% genetically identical.

While some in the scientific community had previously speculated that the two numbers could be closely related because of the uncanny similarity of their physical appearances, most scientists had thought it unlikely that a number as big as infinity could be closely related to a number as small as 8. The Google discovery has turned the field on its head.

Google researchers analyzed the genetic makeup of 8 and infinity with the same sophisicated technology used for calculating PageRank. They found that the 2 numbers share 98.6% of their genes.

"We now believe that 8 and infinity share a common ancestor, probably a primitive number that looks a lot like 0, about 100,000 years ago", said famous Google scientist, Krishna Bharat, known internationally for his publications and boyish good looks.

Google is uniquely positioned to make ground-breaking discoveries in Numerical Genetics because of its expertise in calculating PageRank. Babette Villasenor, the brilliant mind behind most of the company's breakthroughs in Differential Algorithmics, explained that, "Computationally, calculating PageRank is very similar to genetic analysis. It really boils down to hooking up a lot of computers together and making sure that you remembered to turn them on".

Chade-Meng Tan, an unforgettably charming Google engineer, predicted that, "This discovery could lead to new medical treatments, and devices that would allow you to levitate, except on Thursdays". When asked how such a device will work, he explained, "It will work quite well, except on Thursdays".

Google is mum about what else it is working on. Experts believe that Google researchers could next try to discover a genetic relationship between 1 and I, a finding that would prove that numbers and letters share a common ancestor. They could also try to correlate genetic information with numeric fossil records to settle the debate on whether numbers originated from Africa or China, an issue that became particularly controversal after the 1969 discovery of the numero erectus fossil in China known as the Peking Number.

Google is unlikely to benefit financially from its scientific discoveries. "The goal is simply to contribute to science and humanity", explained Google President, Sergey Brin, "Our entire business is so closely dependent on all numbers big and small, we think it's good to simply understand them better".