Category Archives: Opinions

Wizard’s First Rule and Demagoguery

The series was a bit formulaic, and towards the end really preachy toward’s the authors personal philosophies, but Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series always comes back to me because it codified one of life’s most important truths:

Wizard’s First Rule: “People are stupid. They will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they are afraid it might be true.”

That doesn’t mean you’re stupid or I’m stupid, just that collectively, we’re kind of dumb. Put another way by another wise character in popular culture, from the film Men in Black:

Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.

This is what makes it so easy for demagogues from Hitler to McCarthy to Trump to certain local politicians to stir up support: create a boogeyman that people fear, and people will willingly believe your lies as long as you tell them what they want to hear (under the guise of “telling it as it is”).

The thing is, a demagogue doesn’t even have to be consistent in what he says: he can say one thing at first (“our anti-crime drive is doing well, crime is down”) to project one image and a contradicting thing later on (“There is a state of lawlessness, we should consider harsher methods.”) depending on how his goals change and what the particular audience wants to hear. It has the added benefit of making anyone who reports on it look bad and inciting conflict (because people never agree on what the demagogue means!)

While the Wizard’s First Rule is a saddening fact of human nature, we should take heart in the fact that despite humans being stupid and often being caught in the same traps, tyrants still fall and progress is eventually made and we somehow manage to muddle through and humanity survives long enough for the next crisis. (Although Trump’s climate change denial could seriously test that last part.)

Bad news

Recent events both in my country and abroad, both of wide importance and personal importance, have made the past week or so difficult. Bad news and bad events have no master or timing, they do not consider giving us a break, they come and go as they please no matter how bad the situation already is.

I fully understand why many people choose to withdraw from daily news or shut it out altogether or even just avoid social media completely. Hearing the bad news can be disheartening, and it comes at us even when there is work to be done or words to be written or deadlines to be met. We have no choice but to soldier on, to slog through the bad news and do our work anyway. It is the world we live in.

To withdraw from this world and hide away from all the darkness is understandable, if only for a short time. But all the bad things in the world won’t go away simply because we refuse to see them. At some point we have to come back to it and voice our objections and engage in discussion and reach out to other people and ask what we can do to help turn the tide. It is not a burden we simply leave other people to bear, it is on our shoulders collectively to try to make the world a better place, if only a little bit at a time, if only by saying “I don’t think these things are good, and here’s why”

The world doesn’t stop for us because it makes us sad. The work that needs to be still needs to be done. We move forward, one step at a time.

Whatever Doesn’t Kill You Only Makes You Stronger

There’s a very rare, privileged group of people for whom everything in life goes well and they experience great success all the time.

You and I are not part of that group (most likely). Like the vast majority of other people, sometimes our lives are good and sometimes our lives are bad.

Sometimes life can feel cruel or unfair or exhausting. In those times it’s easy to forget the times when life was good and to wallow in your misery. And I guess to some extent humans need a bit of that wallowing time, but try not to linger there too long.

You have to take the good and the bad life gives you and make what you can of it. Whatever failures or trials you suffer, learn from them and move on. Let the low points forge you into a sharper sword. Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger

Introspection and Self-Awareness

Sometimes I write something and at the end I find that it upsets me. Or I think about something I haven’t thought about in a long time just before I sleep, then I have a nightmare about it and it saddens me to think that my subconscious still hasn’t let go of it after all this time

That’s a good thing though, right? One of the purpose of writing and introspection is to become more attuned to your inner thoughts and emotions, to better understand and work with your own self. I try to have this self-awareness that I’m sure not many people bother with

Just yesterday, a friend asked me why I tracked a certain thing that I do. I told him that I track a lot of things because memory is poor and fragile. I track the restaurants I go to, the shows I watch, the books I read, the games I play, the things I spend money on, how much I sleep, etc. Maybe I should add “how I feel” to that list too

Introspection and self-awareness is a fine line to walk. You don’t want to be so absorbed in yourself that you get bogged down in overthinking. Yet everyone needs some level of self-awareness in their life – if only to be able to identify when their own prejudices, fears, or other emotions are starting to affect daily decisions

Large Projects and Losing Focus

I’m kind of a serial project starter. I’m sure it’s a very common thing. I’ll often have random ideas for projects I could do, big or small. I’d have a dozen of them percolating in my head at any one time. And somewhere between four to five dozen scattered down in various documents, notepads and what not, waiting to be explored. (I literally have two such small post-it notes with 5 such items in front of me right now)

These projects range from the small (programming: small scripts to automate some stuff I do regularly; sketches: quick sketches I want to do; writing: blog posts, short stories;) to the rather large and time-consuming (game development ideas, complicated data analysis ideas, novel ideas, some major reorganization/sorting of stuff, and so on). Unfortunately, starting new projects is rarely fruitful unless you actually finish those projects. And I rarely finish the larger projects.

I think about what it takes for me to get one of the largest projects to completion. At which stages do I typically falter?

Typically it starts with an idea. Something cool I could do. Or make. Or write. At this stage there’s a lot of optimism. I’m probably in love with the idea. If it’s a big enough idea, I might even think it’ll make me famous. Or earn me a lot of money. Or win me a nobel prize. Or all of those!

If I don’t like the idea enough to start on it immediately, I’ll add it to one of my lists that hopefully I manage to get back to sometime within the next century.

If I do like the idea enough, I’ll move on to some form of brainstorming. Maybe I’ll let the idea run around in my head for a couple of nights. Typically I’ll run the idea through some people I trust and would have a similar interest in the area. Then maybe draw up a short idea document outlining some of the details I’ve already imagined, to be expanded or reduced later as needed. If it’s a writing thing, I start to think in broad strokes: what the setting is, who the protag is, where I imagine him to be ending etc

At this point I pretty much have an idea of what I want to do. The next step is to study what I need to execute. If it’s a programming or game development project, I look into what tools I’ll need or programming techniques I need to learn. I might need to access or scrape some sort of data source for analysis so I’ll start looking for sources

Then I would try to get started. For programming stuff I might make a small prototype already. If it’s a writing thing, I might write a scene or two.

After the first tranche of work, I’m going to assess how much farther I need to go. And typically this is where many of the projects will drop off. At this point I become aware of the size and scope of what I plan to do. I would look at the sheer amount of work needed to bring the project to conclusion, and it can be disheartening.

I start out optimistic, thinking about the exciting, cool stuff I get to try out, amazing scenes I want to write, interesting gameplay mechanics I thought of, and so on. But once I get past that I start to realize that finishing the job will require a lot of drudgework too. That means a lot of small, annoying, menial tasks that I’ll put off and won’t want to do

I read a lot of self-improvement and “getting things done” sort of stuff, so I know all the usual advice: break down the big tasks into small tasks, take one step at a time, and so on. The problem is usually lack of focus. Since at this point there’s a lull in my interest towards the project, it’s an opportune time for some other idea to come along and distract me. Or maybe some shiny new video game or book starts taking up my time. Or some other random distraction that takes my time away. Then I’m too lazy to pick it up again, and the vicious cycle repeats with the next big project.

Smaller projects are fine – the ones that only take me a few hours or a day to do. It’s the bigger ones that are the problem. I mostly know where I have to improve – I have to be able to focus and commit my time. Eliminate distractions. Stay on track. And so on. Someday I’ll get it right

 

Appearances and Diplomacy

(A bit of Philippine politics in this post, if that sort of thing bothers you)

Recently as the whole world watched one of our political leaders display his expected lack of diplomatic finesse on the global stage, I couldn’t help but think about how in my younger days there’s a good chance I might have approved of his frank, straight-talking, shoot-from-the-hip brand of diplomacy. I have a bit of a reputation myself for preferring to speak frankly and directly instead of dancing around the issues, although these days I understand the wisdom of adapting to the situation as needed

In my youth I was the sort of person who disdained those who prioritized form over substance. For this reason I disliked protocol and ritual and dress codes and formalities and all that. I imagine that IT people are notorious for preferring casual dress and disliking suits. I proudly enjoyed games with dated graphics when other people would fawn over the latest Crysis or whatever. I felt that anyone who prioritized appearances was somehow shallow and that one should focus more on the functional and practical. This is somewhat related to my views on lying and salesmanship

As I got older though, I began to appreciate that sometimes appearances can matter too. Formalities and rituals can have meaning, especially when other people value them. And sometimes you have to dress up, either to impress people, or to fit in with the situation. These are concessions one has to make in order to be member of society. As Sheldon Cooper would say, “it’s the social convention”. I guess I consider learning to navigate society’s social conventions is part of being a mature adult

Which is part of why the current leadership’s lack of diplomacy is so annoying for me personally. It smacks of immaturity. Reacting to criticism with cussing and swearing and dredging up century-old mistakes and calling other people gay, these are behaviors I’d (sadly) expect from a 10 year old on XBox Live, not the leader of a sovereign nation.

And supporters will say at least he’s honest and direct and real. I’m pretty sure I’m honest and direct and real (ask anyone!) and I don’t go around swearing at people just because they point out my faults. There’s no reason to antagonize people just because they don’t agree with you. It’s possible to disagree and still be diplomatic. Not even the leadership of North Korea talks like that. Well, I could talk my head off politics if given the chance, so I’ll just abruptly end this post here

 

 

Lying and Salesmanship

A recent post on Wait But Why had me thinking about lying.

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Some people will scoff if I say I don’t lie. They’re not wrong. I once spun a tall tale about a childhood rival I had visited in the province who challenged me to a swimming contest to explain why I had lost my glasses to the sea. The lie was so good, I got a follow-up question about it a year later and was so surprised I just blurted out that my rival died in accident before finally admitting to the fib

But I will intentionally lie often only for fun or mischief, or in the rare case, to protect someone or avoid some problem or injustice. Even for that last scenario I will try to avoid it as much as possible. I am more likely to stay quiet or avoid discussion or maybe even stretch the truth a bit to “technically correct”, but I try to avoid any outright falsehoods unless absolutely necessary

For this same reason, I kind of have the same aversion to any form of salesmanship, although I am occasionally told that I am good at writing copy. At work I was sometimes asked to write some response to questions in a tender that would be less than honest.

“We don’t have this feature, how should I respond?”

“Just say we have it.”

“But we don’t. How about I just write that this feature will be available?”

You can see the use of optimistic future tense to stretch the truth a bit. At one point a higher-up even told me that all the other suppliers do that to, as if that justifies it. Being asked to outright be dishonest was stressful for me at best so I later on learned to avoid such tasks altogether.

I understand that not all salesmanship is dishonest and that not all salesmen are scammers looking to sell snake oil. But we basically live in a world that is caveat emptor don’t we? I feel like those salesmen who are honestly just extolling the virtues of their wares are the exception rather than the norm.

I recognize the need for salesmanship as a skill in everyday life, although younger me would have scoffed at that idea, believing that things should be judged solely on their merits. But merits aren’t always obvious, and you still need some level of presentation and good communication skills to push your ideas and merits forward.  I’m fine with that I guess, as long as we try to keep things honest.

Speak Up

Asians, and maybe Filipinos more specifically, have this cultural bias towards trying to avoid conflict. So often there will be people who don’t like to speak up when they think something is wrong, either just tolerating it or hoping someone else will take it up. A software dev in another company once told me that he felt like he was complaining so much that he was looking like a bad guy

This is of course, a bad attitude to have. If no one speaks up about the problems we see, how would we ever improve? Someone has to do it, it might as well be you. And often there will be benefits too to speaking up, for one thing you might get credit for raising something no one else has thought of. As they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease

That being said, you should of course pick your battles. Don’t complain too much about the little things, but be sure to raise your voice when there’s an important battle to be fought. This will give you a reputation such that when you do raise something, people will pay attention. Having a balanced approach is a lot more helpful than complaining about every little thing

Oh, and of course if someone is doing something wrong, try not to be combative but be a bit diplomatic. You don’t want to offend anyone, you just want to do things the right way. And question the action instead of the person so that it doesn’t feel like a personal attack. “Hey, is that really how it should be done?” will be received better than “That’s not how to do it, you idiot!”

Don’t be afraid to be unreasonable every so often. As George Bernard Shaw famously said “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Random Thoughts on Time

I remember having a discussion with a friend a few years back where I made the following list to emphasize a point:

  • 8-9 hours at work (possibly more)
  • 7-8 hours of sleep
  • 3-4 hours commuting in Metro Manila
  • 2 hours for meals

That leaves you between 1-4 hours for all forms of recreation including exercise, sports, TV, derping around on the internet, hanging out with friends, and so on. On any given day if you needed to work overtime or run errands, you’re probably saying goodbye to any recreation time on that day. And if you have kids to take care of, that’s basically all days

These days I’ve found that even if you’re not working most days, it’s easy enough to feel like there’s not enough time for all the things you want to do. Or maybe that’s just me because there’s a whole lot of things I want to be able to do. I want to be able to learn, read, write, watch, draw, create, play, work on my side projects, argue with people on the internet, and so on. I don’t understand people who say they have too much free time and they get bored, I feel like those people just don’t have enough things they want to do. The difference between work and leisure is that when you’re  at work, you look for enough tasks to fill your required hours, while for leisure you like for enough hours to do the things you want to do

Ever since I started working I always had this idea that it was a ridiculous notion that we had to give up so much of our time to work so that in theory we could be comfortable in some foggy unknown future. You shouldn’t sacrifice today to enjoy tomorrow, what’s the point? Your hour today is the same amount of time as your hour tomorrow. I get that sometimes you have to sacrifice some time today for some sort of multiplicative effect it may theoretically have on the future (i.e. doing something today for 1 hour may earn you multiple hours in the future), but you shouldn’t sacrifice so much that you are no longer able to enjoy and appreciate the present (if you have that luxury of course)

We get the same amount of time (24 hours) every day as everyone else though. That’s the same amount of time as Einstein or Bill Gates or Barack Obama or whatever other random successful person you want to cite. It’s the ultimate equalizer. Other people accomplish so much with the same amount of time, so why can’t we?

Supposedly it’s all about setting your priorities and focusing on what’s important. Unfortunately focus has always been a problem of mine since I like to dabble in a wide variety of things. I look at the list of things I want to do and I tell myself I have to decide to sacrifice some of these so that the others can get done. Focus only on what matters. What if everything matters?

People will say you should cut back on TV or playing video games if you want to get stuff done, that these things are a waste of time. But as John Lennon said “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time”. If doing these things is what you want to do, you should go for it, just be aware of what you’re sacrificing in exchange

I believe that some time within this century attitudes of people towards work and time will begin to change. That the idea of working 40-50 hour days being a normal thing will start to fade away. (Or maybe I am being too optimistic). Until that time comes, we all need to consciously manage our time and priorities in order to cope

The Things We Learn In School

When you’re young and in school memorizing math formulas or history dates or whatnot, all of it seems so silly and you wonder if you’re really going to be using all of this knowledge in real life. However, the intent of a general education program isn’t specifically to give you knowledge that will be useful to you in the future (although it may turn out to be so)

The stuff school teaches you – literature, mathematics, art, history, science, and so on – are intended to give you a broad enough base from which you can freely choose the direction you want to go in life. This means that as you specialize, many of these subjects may become “irrelevant” to you, but having this broad base of knowledge gives you a better foundation in life. Knowledge from unrelated fields can often give useful insight into your own specialized field

That being said, the most useful stuff you learn from school isn’t the stuff that’s in the lectures or in the textbooks. School is supposed to teach you about more than formulas and history dates too. But it’s a problem that most of the time, formal education doesn’t deliver the lessons well enough. Math shouldn’t be about memorizing formulas or equations, but about developing analytical and problem solving skills. History should be about appreciating how changes affect people and societies, not about memorizing dates. Science should be about appreciating how nature works and developing scientific curiosity. And so on. But because these things are difficult to teach and test for, formal education usually focuses on facts and figures and formulas and all these things that appear in exams. It’s up to the student (or his mentors encourage him) to apply himself further

There are still many more holes in formal education. There are memes about how you learn not so useful stuff like “mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” instead of real-world useful things like how to manage your finance or how to do your taxes. And for sure we need more of those practical things taught to students.

But the most important things you learn from school are in the methods of learning and working well with others. School teaches how to apply yourself, how to study and pick up new material, how to listen to other people, how to determine which knowledge is useful to learn, how to discern truth from fiction, how to work within a set of rules, how to manage your time, how to deal with schedules and deadlines, how to work well with other people, how to deal with difficult people, and so on. In short, the most important lessons school teaches you are about how to deal with the real world