On Being Good

I just read a parable on being good in a Buddhist text (given to me by my wonderful fiancée, called The Teaching of Buddha) that I thought too good not to share:

Once there was a rich widow who had a reputation for kindness, modesty and courtesy. She had a housemaid who was wise and diligent.

One day, the maid thought: “My mistress has a very good reputation; I wonder whether she is good by nature, or is good because of her surroundings. I will try her and find out.”

The following morning the maid did not appear before her mistress until nearly noon. The mistress was vexed and scolded her impatiently. The maid replied:

“If I am lazy for only a day or two, you ought not to become impatient.” Then the mistress became angry.

The next day, the maid got up late again. This made the mistress very angry and she struck the maid with a stick. This incident became widely known and the rich widow lost her good reputation.

Many people are like this woman. While their surroundings are satisfactory they are kind, modest and quiet, but it is questionable if they will behave likewise when the conditions change and become unsatisfactory.

It is only when a person maintains a pure and peaceful mind and continues to act with goodness when unpleasant words enter his ears, when others show ill-will toward him or when he lacks sufficient food, clothes, and shelter, that we may call him good.

This story reminded me of the many times the fiancée herself has been at the end of a snide remark or been snapped at due to me (1) not having enough sleep; (2) not having enough to eat; or (3) both. So sorry! I really do wish I could carry my  friendly and gentle disposition (as my primary school teacher would say) with me all the time, even through trying and stressful times.

Falling in love during CNY in Malaysia

Just came back not too long ago from Malaysia, after spending the night at my aunt’s Malaysian home. She had been urged by her Malaysian neighbours to return to Malaysia to see the firecrackers and fireworks — “Singapore’s too quiet!” her neighbours told her.

The transition into the Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year was a very noisy one. From 11.58 onwards firecrackers and fireworks were set off; who would have thought this was illegal in Malaysia? Very cool.

The fiancée wasn’t with me today; instead, she was back home at her kampung in Batu Pahat. I suppose since I was in JB, we really weren’t that far apart. I swear I heard some of the firecrackers and fireworks that were set off at her place. I could just imagine her smiling and laughing away as she saw bit after bit of paper bursting into flames, thinking about me thinking about her.

Close to midnight, after most of the gunpowderisque contraceptions were set off, she gave me a call to wish me a happy new year and a happy valentine’s. Though we had been just apart for a couple of days, it felt like it had been so much longer. Didn’t expect myself to miss her so much; it’s odd; it’s like falling in love all over again.

The Engagement Announcement

“What do I say??” I asked her in desperation. I looked across the table and there they were, looking quite indifferent to the food with which I had hoped would help bribe my way to an easy “yes.”

I was here today, at the Peach Blossoms restaurant in the Marina Mandarin hotel, to ask for permission to wed the lovely girl beside me. Though I had already proposed, and she had said yes, it wasn’t official (at least according to her) until her parents approved.

I was also here today to celebrate my birthday. (Actually, this was a backup plan to avoid the awkwardness that would come after the announcement. The genius that was Li Shya thought this up. I was supposed to ask, and whatever the answer was, it would be quickly followed up by the bringing forth of the Swenson’s ice-cream cake and a birthday song.)

When the waiters had been told to bring the cake, and all we were doing was sitting around waiting for the used plates to be cleared and the cake to be brought to our table, I knew that this was the moment of truth. But then the moment passed, but I hadn’t quite made my move. “It’s too late,” I thought to myself.

“Do you think it’s too late?” I asked her.

“Do it now,” she said.

“But don’t you think,” I said, ” that it would be pretty bad if I was halfway through my announcement and they came with the cake? I think we should wait!”

And so we did. For a minute or so.

I glanced over at where the waiters were gathered. I sensed no movement.

“Are they going to bring it soon?” I asked her once more, but she had no reply as well. We both looked across at the the waiters, and waited. Then I said, “let’s do it.”

“Uncle, auntie, 我有话跟你们讲,” said I. [Translation: Uncle, auntie, I have something to tell you.]

And then I said it. (How did it go? Well, the fiancee would later tell me that her mom informed her that “your face turned red! And you spoke super fast!”) But that’s not the answer you wanted, was it?

Well, it was evident by the super, duper, wide smiles on their faces (parents + grandma, and probably her aunt who was out of my extremely narrow line of sight) that it was going to be a yes.

And it was.

We’re now officially engaged. Hooray!

Our Second Anniversary in Malacca

Just came back from a trip from Malacca with the fiancee, a trip sorta arranged around our second anniversary. I really enjoyed myself, and so did she. Went shopping, watched a movie at the theatre (and half of one on my lappy). Ate lots — and I mean lots of pretty decent food.

Happy anniversary and two days my fav ger ger! May this be the second of many anniversaries we will celebrate!

The Black Swan

My thinking has lately been a little inspired by The Black Swan, by Nicholas Taleb (author of another of my favourite books, Fooled by Randomness). The basic idea behind the Black Swan is that we cannot ignore improbable events (especially high-impact events), and that absence of proof does not mean proof of absence — which essentially means that having no proof of having seen a red sky doesn’t mean the sky can’t turn red or that sort of thing.

And so I was in the car with the fiancée, discussing whether or not we should go ahead to apply to be part of the balloting exercise for the next build-to-order HDB flats in Punggol. I’m not sure exactly what led to what, but eventually it came to a point where I mentioned that we might not end up together, for whatever reason (I think I used it as an example of how unpredictable life was, referring to how she was worried that we may never get another build-to-order flat anywhere near an MRT station).

Needless to say, she was upset by that remark and asked me to explain myself. I had used an example of a Black Swan (our breaking up), and needed yet another to save her from manslaughter charges. So I pulled one out of my hat and said that, for example, either one of us may die, and thus we would technically “not be together”. Not comforted one bit by my answer, and in fact a little peeved that I mentioned my early demise yet again (I have a habit of talking about how fragile my life — and in fact life in general — is), I drove on in silence for a while before jumping onto another topic, and very quickly the unhappiness hanging in the air, unlike me, departed.

Living a RADical Life

I recently came across the (wonderful) essays of Paul Graham while searching for entrepreneurship material. Paul Graham (co-founder of Viaweb (aka Yahoo! Store), essayist, programmer and more) is a big believer in the idea of rapid application development (or at least a variant of it) (it’s also known in is abbreviated form, RAD).

He often advises technology start-ups to release its application(s) as quickly as possible, even if far from perfect, in order to let market forces decide what improvements are to be made (then iterate improvements quickly). Within months of its release, he argues, the initial idea behind a start-up (and the applications/solutions they’re developing) will change very dramatically no matter how solid they seemed to be in the beginning.

I’m not sure why, but my initial reaction to this method of application development was that of scepticism. I suppose it could be that I was feeling — intuitively — that this sort of methodology was haphazard and lacked planning; and in a way, it is (you design only just enough to get out the first release). But what it lacks in planning it makes up for in speedy improvement in the right direction. (Is it just me or do you see the parallels between this and evolution vs. design? Perhaps God created the necessary conditions for the Big Bang, and that was Universe 1.0.)

RADical Examples

Though I hadn’t realised it, this methodology of application development (starting small and with plenty of rough edges) had been used by me plenty of times before. Many times though, it didn’t even have anything to do with application development! Further consideration on this subject allowed me to see that in many aspects of our lives the philosophy behind rapid application development might be applied, such as:

  • Drawing (start with circle in middle of blank page with a blank mind, and work from there);
  • Web-design (start with prototype layouts, build it, ask for opinions and rebuilt it until the reviews are mainly positive);
  • Cooking a meal (new pasta dish “evolves” with every cooking — what works, what doesn’t? what stays and what goes?);
  • Writing letters (when I first started work I was unsure of how my e-mails should “sound”, and how to sign off. Over time, I developed my style, and found out what got the best responses and what didn’t — I got rid of the latter, and did more of the former. I wouldn’t have been able to “design” letters in this sense);
  • Writing code (yes, I’ve done it plenty of times EVEN when writing code!)

In a sense, rapid application development is much like how you learn anything — you start with unsure, baby steps, and as you gain confidence and skills, you develop a confident walking stride and finally break out into a run. You can design a way to break out into a run first, but it’s that much easier after the foundations have been laid (in fact, I haven’t quite come across anyone who can run but can’t walk). It’s most useful when you’re unsure of what the end product will look like — and for most creative endeavours (life itself being one), it’s difficult if not impossible to have a clear end in mind.

A RADical Case Study

Not too long ago, the fiancée came to me with a data-entry problem. She had thousands of lines of staff leave data that required conversion from MS Excel spreadsheets (done with little data control) into a standardised format (she needed to migrate the data from Excel to a database). Manually, it took hours to do just a few hundred, and it’d have taken her weeks to sort through that whole mess. Wisely, she told me about it (“can’t spend weekend with you, have to work, bla bla bla”) and I decided to see if I could find a way to automate my way out of what I thought should have been a simple problem.

So I told her to send me a few sample sheets and I’d see what I could do. One look at the mess of data and I realised why it took so long for her to do it. There was simply no standard method of inputting the data, and the data was arranged in such a way that though it was (relatively) easy for a human to make sense of, it’d take a miracle to extract the data automagically — just the sort of problem I loved tackling. (Did I mention I once walked on water? (for about 0.01s, before I sank like stone.))

After feeling a little sorry for myself for volunteering, I got to work by analysing the data and understanding the basic structure underlying it. I found that there was, thankfully, some structure behind the data, and that automating something to help with the process would be possible with the magic of macros. I fired up the VBA editor (press Alt-F11 in Excel to see it) and after an hour or two came up with the prototype Leave System 0.1 Beta. At just under a 100 lines of code, it was a quick and simple hack that allowed her to increase her efficiency by 40% (perhaps on Sunday she’d be able to go out with me).

After getting her feedback (and praise, and thanks, and virtual hugs and kisses since I was physically far removed from her location) I got about to seeing what I could do to improve it, which I then sent to her once more. This process was reiterated a few more times, each time bringing more praise (and thanks, and virtual hugs and kisses). During one of these iterations, I actually had the opportunity to observe how the fiancée used my program (I was invited by her mom for dinner… there was crab, kung pow chicken, prawn salad and more… Yum! But I digress.)

The observations I made were probably the most useful of any of the feedback I had gotten (the hugs and kisses were good too, but did nothing for the program). By observing how someone uses your program, you can really again insights into where the program’s strenghts and weaknesses are (it’s almost like knowing how someone feels when you say, “I love you” — priceless). I realised that a function I had included to speed up processing appeared not only to be doing nothing, but was actually hindering progress; I also found that a major bottleneck was the calculation of weekend leaves and the fact that a not small number of leave data were entered as comments instead of being entered into the data fields (– the fiancée looked sad).

These few main issues were fixed the next day. The final version of the Leave System? Version 3.0. Though it now takes almost a minute to run everything (due to loops within loops within loops, and the sheer huge amount of data), and at 400 lines long it’s four times what the initial prototype was, it has increased the fiancée’s efficiency (and her enlightened colleagues ) by (I believe)  at least 70 to 90%.

Thanks to a RADical idea, and the fiancée will be happily in my arms over the weekend.

Will You Marry Me?

“What are you doing?” she asks, after being ignored for the past ten minutes.

“Doing up a photo,” I say.

“Of Arsene?” (Arsene’s my cat.)

“Nope, I’m just doing up a photo.”

And she leaves it at that, letting me be for what seems like five minutes. Then she hears the clickety-click of the keyboard.

“Aren’t you doing up a photo? Why are there typing sounds?” she asks.

“I’m writing something, why?” I reply.

“Oh, nothing.” She says, and returns to watching her show, oblivious to the fact that I’m writing this post in preparation for my proposal tomorrow… will she marry me?

**********

When this post goes live, it will be about two more hours before I pop the question. At that time, we’ll be on the cable car, on our way to Sentosa — and she’ll have no where to run, and no where to hide; and what’s more, she’s afraid of heights — dare she say no?! Ha!

I love you ger ger.

Proposal-Ring

(Bonus picture: look at how oblivious she is to what I’m doing. She looks delightful while she’s watching TV doesn’t she?)

Oblivious

Absence

I’d heard that absence
Made the heart grow fonder, but
Never thought I’d think it to be so true;
I’d always found it too corny and clichéd,
But then… I met you.

You’ll be back next week.
The months, in hindsight, seem to
Have just melted right away.
But as the 29th approaches, Every second
Till then feels like a bloody day.

You are What You Read

On the trainJust before I got on the MRT, I reconsidered my choice of book once more. I always read on the train; but even though I had brought a book out, I had been mulling over that fact throughout the day that I had only brought out one book: John Grisham’s The Partner, and had been regretting it almost from the moment I stepped out of the house. I considered it trash fiction and a bubblegum book — something enjoyable but ultimately valueless — and wished I had brought an alternative.

You could say (and I honestly did think so at that time) that it was the book being perceived as a waste of time that ultimately made me put it away; but such reasoning borders on the ridiculous. Considering how limited my scope of activity was cooped up in the train, saying that it wasted my time made little sense — anything would be better than nothing, which was the something I eventually did. It must have had to do with something more than simply wanting to avoid wasting time reading a trashy novel.

Generally, in the past the only fiction I read were the classics, though this has changed somewhat over the years. Now award-winning, critically acclaimed, contemporary works have become my fiction of choice. All these are and were, I have had myself believe, works of literature that made you think about deeper issues; works that allowed you insights into the human condition you couldn’t get otherwise; works that changed your life.

But let’s be honest here; saying that I only read these books because I totally believed in the power of these books would be flattering myself. I remember countless instances where I read a book not so much because I wanted to learn its lessons, but more because I wanted to be able to tell others that I had read the book. On that train that day, what I really wanted to do was to whip out one of these great book to let others see what I was reading and think, what a fine young man to read such a fine book.