Sunday, December 8, 2019

Gumption

From cradle to grave, in season and out of season, we solve problems. That is our lot. Life throws many at us but often we do a fairly good job of digging ourselves into holes.

At birth, babies bring both joy and mild chaos into their parents' lives. Toddlers are little broncos that must be tamed for their own sake. Adolescents and teenagers can develop into well-adjusted souls or choose to become human flame-throwers. Under the veneer of maturity, adults excel at creating disorder despite their best intentions. Habitually, young people blame their parents for all the world’s problems but, unerringly, the cycle repeats itself generation after generation. All told, human stewardship has neither produced a utopia or a state of total dystopia. Each age, each year, each minute throws up its own web of interlocking curveballs that leave us wheezing and sometimes breathless.

Contemporary human development indices show that the arc of economic progress has widened, but at what cost? On the big issues such as social injustice, religious conflicts, water and food security, immigration and demographic trends, and climate change, has it been a case of two steps forward, and one step back? To be fair, when problems loom large and appear intractable, people feel helpless and instinctively shift the responsibility to governments and multilateral institutions like the United Nations.

When faced witpersonal complications and life’s infinite imponderables, it is much harder to pass the buck. Left to our devices, it is very easy to coast through life by plying the path of least resistance. And unless pushed to the wall, most of us toss and turn within our comfort zone, and are prone to procrastination in stressful situations. However, a purposeful life entails occasionally setting stretch goals that test the limits of our capabilities. At our best, we are capable of amazing exploits, as reflected in our ability to solve very complex problems. It is therefore not surprising that we would develop a generic framework for creative problem-solving, defined as the cognitive process of seeking an original or novel solution to a problem.”

Quite wrongly, the creative terrain is often assumed to be the exclusive preserve of gifted individuals. However, the great American inventor, Thomas Edison, asserted that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” In other words, nothing exceptional comes easy but rather requires sustained effort to accomplish. All of us have it in us to pursue lofty goals, and to exceed all expectations, if we learn to solve problems imaginatively.  

In a hypothetical scenario in which a random selection of people recounted the toughest challenge they ever faced, expectedly their responses will mirror their personal circumstances. However, imagine if we designed an experiment whereby the same group, on a journey of self-discovery and character-building, was asked to: “Locate the heaviest burden within reach and carry it.”  

To help them along, let us equate the “heaviest burden” to the maximum weight each participant can lift relative to their body weight. The objective is not to turn them into professional weightlifters but, by a sleight of hand, to illustrate a structured and creative approach to problem-solving.

First, be clear what the problem is and rephrase it, if necessary, for optimum clarity. Next, research and analyse the problem, then evaluate alternative solutions. Having done so, the most common error is to select an immediate solution. In this case, proceed by learning the basics of weightlifting such as maintaining the right posture to avoid the risk of injury. When bending the knees or squatting, the back must be kept straight, while the head and spine also must be in a straight line. It is important to train relevant muscle groups in a slow and methodical manner so as to stimulate the muscles for growth and adaptation. It cannot be overemphasised that a warm-up exercise at the beginning of a routine helps to prevent injury caused by cold muscles.   

At the outset, it is wise not to rush but to attempt a light load before progressing to increasingly heavier weights. Novices tend to hold their breath continuously, rather than breathing out when lifting, and breathing in when lowering the weights. In any creative process, the feedback loop may be the most salient device available to us. This involves a series of conscious and non-conscious mental activities that oscillate between an individual’s thought process and the sensory signals being received. Within the context of a weightlifting process, pay attention to any sign of acute pain transmitted by the central nervous system. Also, having a role model can serve as a form of inspiration during rough patches.

Over time, tracking incremental progress ensures that “what gets measured gets improved,” until the objective is fulfilled. In summary, teaching points include: | be well-informed | avoid procrastination but do not rush | develop resilience | be intuitive and have a positive attitude | leverage feedback | whatever you do, stay safe (don't break your back!).

Stopping short of calling him a role model, a surprisingly creative problem-solver was the enigmatic but highly resourceful Forrest Gump. Weighed down by life, Gump had the decks stacked against him at birth, and was not expected to amount to much. A wry twist on Gump’s favourite put-down of his detractors was “smart is as smart does,” implying that we should be judged based on our actions and not by appearance. Blessed with an indomitable fighting spirit, he prevailed in life partly due to his calm but tenacious disposition

In many ways, Gump made his own luck - hightailing it when danger lurked, upending the shrimp industry, demonstrating Bubba-sized integrity, investing in a "fruit" company (Apple) to taking a punt on love and fatherhood. Whenever he received negative feedback, he recalibrated and had the gumption to get right back up. Forrest Gump may have appeared ham-fisted, but he was not a quitter and would always carry the heaviest load he could find with equanimity.

Season's Greetings!

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Antsy

Work-life balance has been a controversial water-cooler topic of discussion since the 1980s. Prior to that decade, the impact of work-family conflict had been studied for over a hundred years. What caused the change in semantics and, more broadly, how have we adapted to the dichotomy between toil and leisure?

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Crestfallen

Lauded as the King of Beasts and King of Birds, respectively, lions and eagles are fearsome alpha predators atop the food chain. Both are living proof of the savagery and, paradoxically, the intrinsic beauty in creation. Watching a maned lion strut across the savannah at dusk or an eagle soar effortlessly out of sight can take the breath away. So regal, awe-inspiring, and oblivious of external validation are they, that humans have extolled them for ages. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Hubris

In No Country for Old Men, retired Lt. Col. Carson Wells was hired to hunt down a homicidal maniac, Anton Chigurh. Incidentally, both men were Vietnam War veterans, and Wells knew how utterly depraved Chigurh was. Nevertheless, he took the job because he needed the money, and misguidedly believed that he was smarter than Chigurh. He was not.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Play On

A recent edition of The Economist ran an article captioned The Strange Revival of Vinyl Records. In all probability, few millennials would have any idea what a vinyl record sounds like. But for an older generation, it is hard to believe that it’s been over three decades since cassettes and compact discs (CD) supplanted vinyl, after its century-long domination of the music industry.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Elementary

No one knows what goes on in the mind of a designer. Maybe not even the designer does from one moment to the next. That is because we are all furtive organisers who, habitually, feel obliged to order and rearrange our lives, living rooms, right down to our smartphone user interface. Subconsciously, we strive for simplicity and are conditioned to find workarounds within poorly designed habitats. Professionally, there are design practitioners - the most familiar category being industrial product designers - who solve real-life problems and earn a living by creating products and services that compete for our attention. But at a pragmatic level, design is everyone’s business.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

S.T.E.A.M.

On the fly, can you tell the difference between a nerd and a geek? Until recently, these two words were terms of derision. But, to get on the same page, what do they actually mean?

Although they are virtually synonymous, a sliver of differentiation harks back to their original usage. Nerd, or geek, refers to someone who may be “obsessively studious, offbeat, bashful, or socially awkward.” But nowadays, nerd confers a degree of pride in single-minded expertise, while geek retains its old derogatory reference to eccentric carnival performers. Indeed, the term computer geek sums up the contemporary perception of arguably the most high-functioning band of technical performers that exist in the world today.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Cuckoo’s Nest

Every human being possesses one or more talents that vary across a broad spectrum. Deploying our primary senses, we interface with the world through our vision, auditory perception, touch, and other faculties. But while the majority of people perceive nature simply and unvarnished, there are outliers who instinctively search for patterns with their eyes either open or wide shut, indicative of how their brains are wired. Using symbols, logic and pure imagination, gifted mathematicians have the capacity to study the shape and motion of physical objects, and to delineate space in abstraction. As far as the average person is concerned, these brainiacs might as well exist in a parallel universe.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Tainted Glass

Ignorance can be bliss but, sometimes and depending on the circumstances, ignorance could be debilitating. Earlier this year, a television documentary explored the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Survey results revealed that a third of respondents in seven countries were unaware of the death camps strewn across German-occupied Europe three-quarters of a century ago. In the US, they discovered that two-thirds of American students were clueless about the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Out of Sight

How tiny is tiny? Or how thin is thin? A pharaoh ant or a strand of hair, perhaps? Sounds like a specious response to a silly quiz. In fact, human cognition allows us to perceive nature at, and beyond, eye-level resolution while innate curiosity leads us to explore our environment in all its complexity. Unprompted, we are constantly seeking to make sense of our place in a universe containing objects both great and small.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Crossroads

Move fast but try not to move faster than the speed of thought, especially if you are approaching a crossroads. Semantically, crossroads is a word than hides its singularity under the guise of plurality. A crossroads is, in fact, the intersection of two or more roads that also signifies a crucial decision point.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Plastics Everywhere

Dustin Hoffman’s breakout film role as Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 movie The Graduate featured a young man fresh out of college. During a tête-à-tête with a family friend, Mr. Mcguire, Benjamin received a one-word career advice: “Plastics.” For emphasis, Mcguire repeated, There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Hand-Me-Down

Nostalgia is a double-edged device that can flood the mind with positive memories, but sometimes could be tinged with regret. Recently, I came across a newspaper article titled “The Appliances That Just Go On And On.” The story featured reminiscences by respondents waxing lyrical about their time-defying domestic gadgets, several of which hatraversed two generations, and others waxing indignant about more modern acquisitions.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Reform, Not

There are buzzwords and then there are mega buzzwords. In business, when nudged into making an elevator pitch, white-collar executives might rehash their corporate strategy. In the public sector, politicians and policymakers, with very little prompting, tend to bang on about reform. Doubtless, strategy and reform are credible word cloud favourites in a media age clogged with widgets that spew out useful metadata and superfluous statistics, more of the latter.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Waterloo

From the perspective of a non-American, who has absolutely no skin in the game, I still experience mental whiplash whenever I hear an American politician offer “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting in the country. However, following the recent spate of mindless mayhem, I did a double-take when a hyper-partisan National Rifle Association-affiliated talking head uttered the phrase “I feel your pain” on television. Involuntarily, I sputtered, “No, you don’t.”

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Social Division

Aired a couple of thousand years ago, these words may well be jarring to modern ears unaccustomed to old aphorisms: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the Sun.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Aviation and turbulence are inextricably linked, and it is the rare traveller who has not experienced at least once that distinct stomach-churning sensation and overpowering jolt at 35,000 feet. Usually, the bumpiest ride is experienced by economy-class passengers at the rear of an aircraft, clearly the least desirable seat assignment for anyone susceptible to flight sickness.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Trust Me

Have you ever interacted with people who would feel embarrassed to admit that they watch television? I wonder what they would make of my unabashed disclosure of having binge-watched the critically-acclaimed television series Breaking Bad thrice! Chemistry was my favourite subject in school, which might partly explain my admiration for Bryan Cranston in the role of a cancer-stricken Chemistry teacher turned drug mastermind, nicknamed Heisenberg. Supported by his sidekick, former student Jesse Pinkman, and a superb cast of actors, Walter White discovered that he had the cold-eyed deftness for “cooking” methamphetamine (crystal meth), an illegal recreational drug.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Squeezed

The middle class is an ambiguous social construct inhabited by people best described as possessing “significant human capital.” Their accrued potential places them a cut above the rank-and-file, but not in the same league as the privileged class. Typically, the middle class encompasses managers, salaried bureaucratssmall business-owners, and professionals who occupy the engine room of a modern economy. Decades-long access to skills training and knowledge resources led to unprecedented value-addition, wealth-creation, and improvements in living standards. Essentially, knowledge workers represent an indispensable backbone of civilised societies, with the tacit promise of upward mobility and a much-prized social status.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Alternative Intelligence

Standing in a queue at the Louvre museum in Paris, as it snaked towards arguably the most famous painting in the world, I was startled when an irreverent tourist out of my line of sight muttered, It is rather small, isn’t it? Granted that the Mona Lisa, measuring 30in by 21in seemed unimposing, nevertheless a 500-year degree of separation could not mask the lady’s elegance and magnetic sheen. When in early 2019, I saw the ubiquitous image of Mona Lisa babbling animatedly in a WhatsApp clip, the surreal head and facial movements appeared clever but harmless.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Poor Earth

When Chinese President Xi Jinping toured a provincial rare-earth processing plant in May 2019, analysts speculated that his visit signalled overt messaging by China in the middle of tortuous trade negotiations with the US. Suspicions have long trailed China’s near-monopoly over rare-earth supplies, not unlike the past scenario in the petroleum industry.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Visually Speaking

Crisp. Compact. Chic. Composed. Silken. Spartan. Taut. Trim.  

Try 4C.2S.2T. But to what do these adjectives refer?

Before answering the question, first let me admit my ignorance but abiding fascination with an East Asian puzzle. To an untrained ear, hearing Mandarin or Cantonese spoken, say on TV, is always riveting. In print, the script is even more impenetrable.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Building Blocks

Driven by rational self-interest, human beings have always been drawn towards activities that create economic value. And over the last century, pioneers in scientific management techniques, such as time-motion studies, laid the groundwork for improving work methods in a manual, mechanised, and progressively digital world.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Jack Ma's Catch-22

An unconventional leader of the People’s Republic of China, Deng Xiaoping, set in motion market-driven economic reforms in 1978 after almost thirty years of orthodox Communist rule. That same year, Jack Ma was a 14-year old self-taught English tour guide who bootstrapped his way to a college degree ten years later.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Joe & Jo Pleb

My last blog post, titled Déjà Vu?, described how technological innovations of the last 200 years radically altered the course of history.

To recap: before the industrial age, the majority of human beings worked on the landWithout access to machines, labourers and farm animals alike were fed from harvested crops, thereby depleting outputs and reducing agriculture to a subsistence enterprise. At that time, thplebeian class also included craftsmen, miners, hunters, fishermen, and foot soldiers, who literally had to win the bread that kept their families alive. On their part, women’s childcare and housekeeping chores were deemed as necessary, but insufficient, exertion that fell short of being acknowledged as bona fide work.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Déjà Vu?

The generations born after World War II could be forgiven for believing that economic growth was their birthright. Nowadays, intrinsic metrics for human progress have come to include faster, always on, more abundant, thinner, more liberal, cheaper or, better still, free. As these and similar expectations ratchet up in a frenzied and hyper-connected world, perhaps a little perspective is in order.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Zero-Sum Delusion

Professor John Nash received the Nobel Prize in 1994 for his contribution to the field of game theory, the premise of the zero-sum game. A couple of years later, the movie A Beautiful Mind featured Russell Crowe as Nash spiralling into schizophrenia in an ironic twist to the film’s title. Emotionally wrenching in parts, the dramatisation of John Nash’s life may have led some viewers to infer that genius is not cost-free.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Law and Othèr

As a 14-year old student, Newton’s Third Law of Motion \For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction/ represented a higher gear shift for an impressionable if fledgling scientist. Much later, I discovered that many non-scientists were vaguely familiar with this law, seemingly appropriated into general lexicon.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Hardly Simple

The word association between simple, simpleton and simplistic is psychologically indelible. It is, however, mystifying how a word that means easy is often conflated with being foolish and shallow, in that order. Sometimes, simple is also wilfully alternated with cheap and unsophisticated. Does this perhaps explain why technology companies, for instance, embraced the banal word user-friendly in the 1970s, rather than describe their products as easy to use?

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Coming Revolution

Two of the world’s most celebrated works of art, David and the Pietà, were sculpted at the turn of the 16th century by Michelangelo, the Florentine outlier. Michelangelo chipped away at massive blocks of Tuscany marble like an ordinary artisan wielding a hammer and chisel. However, only an extraordinarily gifted artist could have divined such masterpieces.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Ma Lessons

As a mental puzzle, I wonder how much time an average person spends each day thinking about nothing. For the next couple of minutes, I urge you not to switch off because I will, in fact, be writing about nothing.  

Broadly, and depending on the context, nothing is analogous to zero, empty, void, or zilch. Of the lot, perhaps none has a more colourful history than zero which, paradoxically, was invented to fill a mathematical void.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Energy Blues

Former US President Richard Nixon, a hard-boiled conservative, signed the landmark Clean Air Act (1970 CAA) into law nearly half a century ago. Today, his fellow Republicans are contemptuous of scientific evidence for human-induced climate change. And long before the party’s 2008 vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, threw red meat to her base by sneering Drill, Baby, Drill, a would-be American anarchist, Bill Epton, had coined the street-level battle cry Burn, Baby, Burn. 

Monday, April 29, 2019

Time’s Always Running Away

The 1964 cover version of the song Time Is On My Side by The Rolling Stones was memorable for its defiant rendition of the refrain “yes, it is!” Back then, who could have predicted that the band’s frontmen, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, will be alive today and still be performing, subject to a pacemaker or two? Ostensibly, it is unwise to judge a song - or singer - by its cover!

Monday, April 22, 2019

Brainstorm # 1: Water Scarcity


Fact # 1
Today, over 1 billion people lack access to clean water. As many as 36 countries suffer from severe drought.
Fact # 2
70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by ocean water which accounts for 96% of our planet’s water supply. Ocean water cannot be consumed because it contains 35 grams of salt per 1 litre of seawater.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Parched Parched Parched

Can you tell the difference between Wet, Wet, Wet and Wet Wet Wet? I imagine that the former presupposes that by ducking and weaving, you could avoid the worst of an onrushing shower if you ran into the nearest shelter. On the other hand, Wet Wet Wet suggests that you are already soaked to the skin in a blinding rainstorm.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Setting The Stage

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when using the Google search engine, I chuckle at the peripheral deadbeat I’m Feeling Lucky button. Almost redundant, my memory is however nuanced enough to remember when digital tools were less ubiquitous. To me, I’m Feeling Lucky serves as a metaphor for information overload and material excess, especially for people in affluent nations who are highly susceptible to attention deficit and decision fatigue.


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