ad astra per alia porci

life happens
December 21, 2008, 4:35 am
Filed under: diary


T has always been the epitome of steadfastness and reliability to me. He is the kind of person who you would readily entrust with responsibility. He is one of the hardest workers I have seen and a real go-getter, as far as my scouting days with him in secondary school and junior college suggest.

Hence when he announced to a gathering of friends that he is planning to marry last year, I was pleasantly surprised. I thought that being someone who lives life on fast forward, it is not unbecoming of T to be hitched so early. The usual good-natured teasing and jousting happened, and we thought it was great news.

Surprise led to intrigue when T invited us to the full month celebrations for his baby a week ago. T was fast for his age, but isn’t he a bit too fast? The obvious inference was that he had a shotgun marriage. But understandable as it is, he did not tell us that when we met a year ago. What does that mean? Hence while normally one would feel happy for a friend, in such circumstances my happiness was tinged with a shade of uneasy uncertainty and intrigue.

T was my first peer who got married, and also the first to have a child. Getting married and having babies are not matters friends compete in, but seeing T apparently doing so well with his life so quickly inevitably led to some jealousy on my part. I am yet to even have my first girl friend, much less get married. I felt somehow inadequate and unaccomplished. This sense of being left behind in the race of life made the itch of having to see it to believe it even stronger.

So that’s how I spent my day today: I embarked on a roadtrip with two other friends to visit T at T’s house in Johor.

I felt slightly guilty because this visit was not solely motivated by my altruistic desire to meet a friend I have not seen for a while, but also to satiate my curiosity as to how he is coping and how it feels like to be a father so early in life. I am in some sense trying to experience a snippet of early fatherhood vicariously through T, in a slightly Machiavellian fashion.

T now lives in a suburban residential area not far from the causeway. The entire neighbourhood is filled with lines and lines of cosy-looking, new and well-maintained private houses. One would have mistaken this place for a really new private residential neighbourhood in Singapore, if not for the street signs with Malay names on them. Hence our initial impression was a good one as we circled the neighbourhood trying to locate T’s house.

T greeted us in his tan polo and khaki slacks with soft handshakes. His complexion seemed to have become lighter. I congratulated him on behalf of the scout friends who couldn’t make it. He invited us into his house and disappeared to the upper levels. We were left wandering at the living room, taking snacks, smiling at his relatives, and making small talk with the few medicine friends which were there already. T’s wife was nowhere in sight; we later found out that she was breastfeeding the child.

It was a quiet celebration. Catered food, about 10 friends and T’s immediate family. T’s wife’s family are from Myanmar and were not able to come down to Malaysia.

T was constantly disappearing and when he did appear he was usually shuffling around the house. We only managed to really get to converse with him somewhere at the middle of the lunch service.

T was cordial and friendly, but seemed uneasily undisengaged. We made small talk, before we approached the deeper issues. T seemed like he was floating; he seemed too distant for a father, and he looked just like any of us. No increased air of maturity brought about by fatherhood, no superlative emotions exuded. It felt like just another day.

The problem is that it is not. I can’t imagine what I would do if I had a child at this age. I would be at a loss. I might feel happy that I am father or I might brood over the fact that I have such an immense responsibility now. At any rate, I won’t be neutral. But T acted and looked as if it was just another day. That is what troubled me.

When we finally managed to isolate T and get down to talking, T was again neutral in his comments. “So how is it like being a father?”. “Life goes on… like that lor”. “So what do you plan to do now?”. “Just study and get my degree”.

But T’s reaction to my other friend’s question was markedly different, and telling. J asked T, “so why did you get married so early?”. T retorted, in a irritated tone that suggested frustration, “what can I do, it was a shotgun marriage”.

That was the first time in the evening T actually showed any emotion that departed from the average. And it gave us the impression that he was not particularly happy, as much as we would want it to be otherwise. Soon after he answered J’s question, he went back to his shuffling around the house.

The incident broke my previous impression of T. I thought he would have wanted this to happen all along, that it was part of a deliberate plan to advance his own life and grow as a person. But it was not. A shotgun marriage, which led to a child that was not expected. And this was coming from a person who I thought was one of the more steady-minded person I have seen. He is a reluctant outlier.

We talked quite a bit about how we felt on the drive home to Singapore. For J this reaffirmed his belief that he will adopt a child when he gets married. If he ever gets married. For me T’s situation was a caveat against taking things too fast. Having a child so early is extremely disruptive.

I saw marriage and having children a bit differently now. The thought that marriage and children are obligatory have lost much of its lustre.

Marriage is not some ritual that everyone must go through, and substance is more important than form because getting married itself says nothing about how fulfilling it is. Perhaps marriage itself is an archaic notion that has lost much of its relevance.

As for children, having children is not like keeping a score in a competition and one should always plan for one. But sometimes, life just happens. And you are left to pick up the pieces. For better or worst. I hope things turn out well for T in the end. There is every chance it would given the love , support and warmth displayed by his family when we were there.

please mr postman
December 17, 2008, 2:22 pm
Filed under: soundtrack | Tags: , , , ,

Current musical obsession: Please Mr Postman, in its various incantations.

First a Motown hit for the Marvelettes, it has attracted a distinguished and impressive set of covering artistes, which very significantly includes the Beatles and the Carpenters (great, great bands).

This song is simply pleasant; a happy singalong that conjures up idyllic and happy impressions of childhood eagerness and wide-eyed innocence, of days spent simply waiting for pleasant surprises which are always just round the corner, where yearnings are always finally fulfilled.

My favourite cover is by the Beatles. The first thing that struck me was the sheer power of Lennon’s voice:

A close second is the Carpenter’s cover. Karen Carpenter’s voice is just soooooo sweet and clear. It is a real pity that she passed away so early. There is less grit compared to the Beatles’ version, and much more sweetness.

what’s with the stuff
December 16, 2008, 4:03 pm
Filed under: current affairs, diary | Tags: , , ,


Flyers are like the plague: I try my best to avoid them. When faced with an outstretched arm armed with a flyer, I know that I am in an impossible situation. On one hand I would like to make life easier for the person who is only doing his or her job; but on the other hand I know that the flyer would be wasted on me because I simply will have no desire for anything advertised. Whenever I took a flyer, it was usually because the person who was distributing them looked really pitiful with his or her intimidating stacks of undistributed flyers. I don’t need the information on the flyers, and I wince whenever I had to chuck a freshly-printed piece of glossy paper drenched in colours into the waste bin.

The wastefulness of it all irks me tremendously. Waste requires excess, and the modern age seems to suffer from the problem of unhealthy abundance. We produce too much for our own good, and we overconsume.

The supreme irony is that theoretically at least, the free market should not result in waste, but rather achieve maximal efficiency in the allocation of resources in our world.

Take the example of the modern supermarket. I have always wondered whether it is overstocked, and where did the excess unsold food go. Surely everything cannot be sold, and I believe supermarket operators would not have given away food for free because that would result in no rational consumer paying money to buy their goods at all. As a result much waste is created, which is such a pity since perfectly good food that could have been used to feed the poor is wasted. In this sense, the free market guarantees waste.

Producers deliberately provide goods that do not stand up to repeated and prolonged use. Computers get obsolete quickly. The phrase “they don’t make it now like in the good old days” seem to apply to almost anything that can spoil through frequent use. It is amazing how despite technological advancements, products seem to break faster.

The media creates demand that would otherwise not exist and plays off inherent human fears and weaknesses, amongst which include the fear of ostracism and social rejection. Thorstein Veblen would label such consumption as “conspicuous consumption”. The fickle world of fashion bears this out; designers churn out new designs every season and consumers buy them, even though their wardrobes are already bursting with underused apparel.

I am in no position to offer concrete and well-thought solutions to our waste problem for I am not a professional with a deep understanding involved in industry, but I am at least able to point out certain general points.

We should recognise that laissez-faire alone is insufficient; the free market should be supplemented by sufficient regulations. Of course the devil is in the details and the question of exactly what regulations are sufficient is the real crux of the matter.

We as consumers and individuals should also recognise that our consumption patterns have a direct impact on the actions of producers. Each decision not to buy excessively is a signal to the producers that they have produced too much. This can create a positive feedback cycle where production is rolled back. On the other hand, our own greed can also result in producers producing more and more unwanted goods.

We should also recognise that we don’t need so much to live normal and satisfying lives. Stop grabbing every free gift that presents itself; think instead of whether one really needs it. Stop hoarding so many things at home and instead pare down to the basics and give away the rest to those that need it more.

It is ironic that technology in dramatically reducing production costs have in turn come full circle by making us want even more to be produced, trapping many modern humans in the cycle of work and shop and concomitantly the world of stress and existential ennui. Perhaps a change in our view of consumption and more importantly, our consumption patterns, would change things for the better.

what smart students know
December 14, 2008, 7:09 am
Filed under: Law, Lifeskills, skills | Tags: , , , ,

Notes from What Smart Students Know by Adam Robinson

A useful book for students who are already putting in the hard work but have not awoken to the realities of study. This book helps those who need some direction and finesse to complement brute effort, but is not very useful for anyone who already appreciates the need to read smart and organise well.

Continue reading

the myth of the self-made man
December 12, 2008, 3:47 pm
Filed under: diary, the arts | Tags: , , , , , ,


The path of success has not been trodden by many and is explained by even fewer. Success fascinates and has been analysed time and again, especially by the plethora of self-help gurus peddling recipes for success, and this age-old pursuit of mankind which does not fit itself to summary conclusions.

Joining the list of attempts at unraveling the mystery of success, Malcolm Gladwell has this to conclude about success in his latest book Outliers: success is the result of a combination of hard work, cultural factors and opportunity, not “innate” genius or natural ability.

This conclusion is unconventional; most self-help gurus will tell their audiences that success is the product of individual action, and indeed the entire American ethos is based on the understanding that race, religion, culture and other “background” factors have naught to do with the success of an individual who works his way up solely through his own actions and innate ability. If these factors helped at all, they provided the motivation for the individual to work his way out of a miserable existence; the person succeeds in spite of circumstance.

The difference between Gladwell’s view and conventional thinking is probably explainable. If success is not primarily or solely the result of individual work, the self-help legion loses its clientele. They have to preach this approach for fear of losing their ricebowl. Gladwell, being a purveyor of pop-general knowledge, adopts the more neutral stance of an interested researcher and observer on the subject of success.

Gladwell traced the personal histories of extremely successful people and found that it took a serendipitous coalescence of culture, opportunity and sheer hard work to precipitate success. He cited the example of Bill Gates, who was the only kid at his age and time to be given the opportunity to have unlimited access to computers, and hence the opportunity to hone his programming skills. Asians do better at math because of their roots in the strong work ethic and culture necessitated by rice cultivation, and the manner in which Asian languages deal with numbers (e.g. instead of saying “eleven”, the Chinese use the English equivalent of “ten-one”). Practise of 10,000 hours is the rough minimum required to achieve expertise in any skill or subject.

From a practical and common-sensical point of view, this seem to make sense. Gladwell’s reasoning seem to pass the simple rules of causation; if Bill Gates didn’t end up with the opportunity to use computers for so long, he probably would not be where he is today. No computer usage, no success.

However this method of reasoning can be expanded and applied ad infinitum, leading to ridiculous conclusions. For example, what would happen if a different sperm met the egg in Bill Gates’ mum’s womb? We can say that without this event, Bill Gates would not have existed. Do we then say that the sperm and egg lottery is crucial for success in life? Certainly it makes sense. We can extend this method of reasoning to almost every event in Bill Gates’ life. Do we then conclude that every event, from the most minute to the seemingly crucial, is important? If every event is important, it leads to the paradoxical inference that none of the events are important since relatively speaking all events count. Therein lies the Achilles’ heel of Gladwell’s book.

Yes, it is easy to poke holes in Gladwell’s research and thinking on success. If we adopt the stance of a statistician or even a scientist, we will tell him to plot graphs and find correlations between IQ and success in life. Give us cold, dependable statistics, rather than causal connections seen by a single (albeit well-read) individual. That said, the accuracy of statistical methods is doubtable: correlation can be found between almost anything if we look hard enough. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, philosopher of risk and uncertainty and writer of Fooled by Randomness fame (a book that I heartily recommend for anyone who believes wholeheartedly in a deterministic universe and the accuracy of conventional statistical methods), would tell you that.

However an unsophisticated approach to causation and causal analysis is inevitable for a pop-journalist like Gladwell, and I mean it without a hint of disrespect or disdain. We lead our lives working in such a manner too, and any extensive and sophisticated approach to analysing our lives will make decision-making practically impossible. Life just can’t happen without reductionist thinking.

Despite the apparent flaws, I do still agree with Gladwell’s observations. A disclaimer: I have not arrived at my personal conclusions on the basis of painstaking statistical or scientific analysis, but rather on the strength of my personal experiences and beliefs, which I believe any common man would use as their own basis for their own personal conclusions.

As one matures, youthful brashness is slowly replaced by a recognition of human vulnerability and the interdependent nature of our existence. As I grew older I gradually realised the contours of my abilities and learn to cope with my shortcomings as they surface and try to capitalise on what I am good at. As I grew older and had a longer history to ponder and analyse, I begin to note that any success I have in life is the combination of a myriad of factors, many of which are not entirely controllable by my own hands.

Looking back on what I have done and the opportunities I was given, I have gradually moved from an attitude where I took things from granted to appreciating the miracle of existence, a shift which occurred probably due to the process of maturing as a person.

Being in the gifted education system engendered an early belief in self-determinacy; whatever I have got was as of right or due solely to my own hard work and abilities. Of course this led to an inflated sense of self-worth and ability. The government preached meritocracy and the whole economic system was and still is premised on individual work; I naturally became a firm believer in the Gradgrindian idea of the “self-made man”. Success is the result of me, me and me. Nothing else. Encountering the supposed virtues of lassez-faire economics fanned the flames.

The first chink in the armour came when I studied Charles Dickens’ Hard Times for my junior college literature paper. The Victorian society depicted by Dickens is eerily similar to the modern Singaporean one where capitalism ran rampant and individualism grew, and the character of Thomas Gradgrind embodied the mistaken belief that the self-made man existed. Dickens set out to show that no man can achieve what he has in life through himself solely, and to expose the myth of the self-made man, and he did so by unveiling the hypocrisy of Thomas Gradgrind, who brags about how he climbed up the social ladder from the “gutters” through his own hard work without the help of others, through revealing the fact that Gradgrind had a caring family who took good care of him.

That book got me thinking. Then came various events in my life that gave me the clearest of signal that however hard I may have tried, the tides of fate may turn against me at any one moment. Amongst other events I failed to obtain the scholarship of my dreams, despite getting near perfect scores for my ‘A’ Levels. Currently I am yet to achieve the grades I know I am capable of in law school, even though I work really hard. These events validated the hint of doubt and changed my perspective. Success is a mixture of chance and work, and today whenever I see someone who is successful, I always factor in this element of chance and avoid hero-worship of any kind.

The best conclusion, I think, is that success is complicated, just as life itself is, and anyone who says that he or she is self-made is making a fallacious and untenable claim. Success can be largely due to innate ability, but we can never conclude unhesitatingly that ability is the sole cause of success. Indeed, Gladwell does not outrightly deny the role that natural aptitude and genetics have to play in the race to success. Culture and opportunity are but two other factors out of a multitude that synergises with aptitude to create success. We will have a more holistic, realistic and healthy view of the world if we recognise that no one is an island. There are no true Gradgrinds, only happy results of the machinations of fate and endeavour.

Guinness Draught
December 12, 2008, 2:39 pm
Filed under: alcohol | Tags: , ,

The black colour of the beer reminds me of coffee, and the tinge of roasted barley tasted like coffee too. The head is creamy and there is virtually no gas. I was worried about piling on the calories but Guinness apparently contains less calories than orange juice. Given my past experiences with non-gassy beers, I did not retain high expectations, but the experience of drinking this beer was a good one. The distinctive roasted barley taste made this beer unmistakaeable and unique, and there was sufficient depth to make thisĀ  a satisfying drink.

the last waltz
December 10, 2008, 12:50 pm
Filed under: diary, soundtrack, the arts | Tags: , ,

I first encountered the Band when I was in junior college; I borrowed the DVD for The Last Waltz from the school library (yes, RJ library does kick some serious ass) on strength of the fact that Martin Scorsese directed the film.

I didn’t appreciate or understood the merits of the concert then. But now I do, and i struggle to find concrete reasons. The Band just seems to grow on me with the years passing. Might be because I am growing older and bluegrass/country singalongs are beginning to stretch their claws over me. Breezy croons with swagger to boot. I like.

Lon Helm is a god.