Things We Forget

Today
My Favourite

I’m not sure how many people have chanced upon Post-It Notes with inspirational illustrations anywhere in Singapore and picked them up; the author/illustrator/documenter of Things We Forget is certainly doing something amazing for his/her own life and that of the others. The Post-It illustrations and notes are indeed inspirational if not a reminder of how much wisdom we lose in the course of conducting our lives. The address of the blog is apt in that sense.

It is amazing how the project have been sustained for more than a year, and done by just a single person.

And since I’m at introducing and recommending other websites, there’s an interesting free online textbook project at BookBooN. It’s not exactly free so to speak, since the textbook is interspersed advertising much like a magazine is. But well, you don’t pay a cent to download.

Puzzles & Patience

Rose
Frustrating Rose...

I finally borrowed a copy of William Poundstone’s How Would You Move Mount Fuji from the library the other day and I was doing my little research on logical thinking puzzles and such when I stumbled upon the game of Petals Around the Rose. It is interesting how this puzzle is related to Bill Gates in his young, start-up days and that Bill have eventually gone on to make use of puzzles to decide whether to hire a person as described in Poundstone’s book.

The three little ‘rules’ is that the name of the game is ‘Petals Around the Rose’ (and this is significant), that the answer is always even, and that anyone who gets the logic of the game can only announce and answer and not try to verify his logic. Getting the answer 6 times in a row is a sign that one has become a Potentate of the Rose (the one who knows the solution).

The basics of the game as well as a computer programme to let you try figure out the answer to this little puzzle can be found here.

I initially wanted to work it out myself but then curiosity as to whether anyone would put up an answer online overwhelmed me and after I did a search, it appears that Wikipedia is indeed an amazing all purpose reference source. I shall not provide the link here lest you are like me. Try your best to figure out the answer!

Life as a Proletariat

SAS Logo
Paradise for the Proles

Slightly less than three-quarter of a person’s lifespan nowadays is spent on work and so it is really important to love your work. And while internal motivation is important at sustaining you, the environment that you work in, the boss that you work for and the people you work with are all going to affect the way you see your work.

Of all these factors, your employers can mould quite a substantial portion of your experience. They might not control working culture but they have a great influence over it; they might not be able to dictate your life but they can create circumstances to urge you to do as they see fit. That makes choosing your employers important and the recent ranking published by Fortune Magazine is particularly valuable for that purpose.

SAS top that list of ‘2010 Best Companies To Work For’. You can see from the perks how the employer really ‘cares’ in the real sense (no sarcasm intended). Although the title of this entry is somewhat demeaning, I do believe that treating your worker well makes great business sense. In fact sometimes I think that there should be Human Resource Consultancies that help check companies’ books and then find out how to improve performance through treating workers better – the military around the world are in need of that. Maybe there’s already such firms and they probably borrow tricks from SAS as well.

So if you’re intrigued by Google and want to work for them, maybe you should consider SAS if you treasure job security above remuneration.

The Truth About Procrastination

To all my friends at EPRZ, I am back!

I have been intending to write this article for months, ever since I published my first in June 09. But why didn’t I write it? Because I have to practise what I preach. I have to do the things that I advise my readers to do. Today’s article discusses the benefits of good procrastination and there is no better way to validate its credibility than to use myself as the test subject. Here are the facts of my research.

As children, we were told by our parents to stop procrastinating and start working on our household chores. As students, we were told by our teachers to stop procrastinating and start working on our school assignments. And they would always use this popular saying, “the early bird catches the worm”, to support their argument. Fair enough. But what happens to the early worm? Doesn’t it get eaten? The truth of the matter is that procrastination can be good or bad depending on how you use it. So the important issue is not how you should avoid procrastination but how you should use procrastination to your advantage.

There are many activities that you could be doing now. All these activities are competing for your time and attention. How do you decide which activity to begin and which to postpone? Through objective evaluation, you will have to rate each activity in importance. After that, you will have to practice the principles of good procrastination- to learn when to do the right things and to postpone the wrong things. It means choosing to avoid lesser activities in favour of greater goals. If you have just been struck by a brilliant inspiration, for example, then you should work on that new idea and postpone the thought of running an errand for your parents. Learning to prioritise is, thus, the key to good procrastination.

During my absence from ERPZ, I have completed my National Service, organised several grassroots events, and earned my driving license among many other completed tasks. I have been using procrastination to my advantage by avoiding the less important activities to do the real work. And even though I have sacrificed the cleanliness of my room, the well-being of my stomach, and of course the welfare of the readers at ERPZ, I have accomplished much by practising good procrastination.

Most people will tell you that procrastination is bad and that you should avoid it or cure it. Their ill advice is predicated on the false belief that procrastination means doing absolutely nothing. Author Paul Graham writes that “there are three types of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on a) nothing, b) something less important, c) something more important.” The last type, good procrastination, is what you should strive for.

Importance of Focus

Lenses
Getting focus right...

It’s been a while since I last written something on studying; recently I observed how some students take a long time to study. Obviously, many of these people spend substantial amount of time plainly staring at pieces of information, occasionally reading through them with a tiny bit of appreciation and often not quite understanding what they are studying anyways. Computer gaming, and loads of interactive stuff online coupled with consistent television watching has reduced our attention span significantly and impaired our abilities to focus.

So to improve how you study as well as your concentration, you might like to try a few of the following:

Plan Revision & Stick to it
The first step to keeping focusing is having a good, realistic plan. Without a plan, when we decide that we’re going to study, we’ll often just lay out the books and stare at words, possibly read a little and then zone out. When we don’t have a plan that dictates specifically what we are going to study and for how long, we’ll often just drift about the different materials we have, not doing anything eventually. So come up with a proper plan, noting down what topics for what subject you’ll be studying and for how long. Give yourself breaks between topics and when you’re executing your plan, make sure you follow through and only skip the breaks if you believe you can continue. If you find yourself needing more or less time than planned, adjust your plans accordingly. Don’t tire yourself out if you are fast with your studying; reward yourself with a longer play time or break when you finish early.

Find a Good Site
Some people just can’t study at home. I’m not exactly such a person but many people around me are like that. The problem is when there’s people familiar around you, you’d be tempted to eavesdrop their conversation, observe what they are doing – in other words, doing everything else except the task at hand. This happens less (at least at a lower intensity) when it comes to having strangers around you, unless you’re really busybody. Studying outside might be a better option; Starbucks is pretty friendly with studying people, especially the more remote branches, The Coffee Bean is not.

Media White-out
For those who can’t even withstand a bit of distraction will need to try a boycott of media and other attention-seeking stuff. Turn off your TV, radio, computer for a pre-designated time that follows from your study plan. Do not allow yourself to use the computer or those devices even when you’re taking a break. Limit distractions to nuts, snacks, and drinks without digital or analog devices that produces visuals or audio. These people might realise they’ll be better off staying at home and paying their family to get out of the house. Of course, once you’re done with whatever you need to accomplish, you can get back to the stuff you like to do so that they act as a reward for your efforts.

A measure of self-awareness is necessary to help you with this; knowing how your mind gets distracted and what it is easily distracted by will help you attain focus through the elimination of these distractions. It sounds like a pretty simple concept but people usually don’t take steps to help themselves concentrate. Instead, they wait around for their moods to come or the distractions to go away; if you want to make any progress at all, you’ll have to start taking charge of how you waste your time.

Random Issues

Scrooge
The father of Humbug...

In this holiday season, The Economist discusses Joel Waldfogel’s Scroogenomics with a little humour. Of course, the signalling effect of gifts is once again ignored.

Emily Yoffe writes about sibling’s “rivalry” on Slate.com. The article explores the love-hate cycles that siblings undergo through the lifetime and considers the influence of parents. In general, the article’s inclinations is that having siblings is generally better than not having any; children benefits from unintended ‘guidance’ from older siblings especially through even the mildest verbal bullying. It helps to have someone close to your age beside you most of the time when you’re young because it prepares you for social interaction and also helps you understand the mind of another. Perhaps most importantly, having a sibling makes an ego that blooms out of a single child less possible.

The small number of psychologists who study sibling relationships say that their intensity in childhood helps prepare us for the adult social world we will someday need to navigate. After, all every day siblings teach the necessary, if painful, early lesson that you are not the world’s most important person.

Pop-Science seem to be poking fun at Avatar; suggesting that the film is made possible by technologies and science that would be impossible in a world that is implicitly advocated in the film. It is interesting to note that several of the film’s actors have signed on for potential sequels and as my sister rightly points out: these actors, like Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldaña are not exactly going to appear in the future films since they’re all Na’vi anyways and merely helping to generate the computer graphics if not offering their dubbing services as well.

The Value of Pessimism

Smile Frown
To smile or frown?

I felt a bit vindicated to read in the Lexington column in The Economist‘s Christmas edition that two writers have decided to tackle ‘the American tendency towards mindless optimism’. Being a habitual pessimist it does feel good occasionally to read about people who are pessimists and stand up for their views instead of let themselves be bashed by optimists.

The two writers mock the optimists for being too positive and too dependant on positive thinking to help them in their lives, from defeating cancer to not gaining weight. I like that the example of the banking crisis was used to justify when one should listen to ‘the killjoys’ and stop letting the bubble inflate. Optimism apparently blinds sometimes, and this is where pessimism comes in. I like how one of the writers allude pessimism to ‘foul weather’ like thunderstorms: it might be dampening and depressing, but to some it refreshes and energises them. It can wake people up from their daydreams and their eternal sunshine (even though many people love thunderstorms because they can sleep comfortably through the cool weather).

But of course, there needs to be some optimism. Ultimately, Lexington argues that pessimism should be taken like a pinch of salt, just a pinch / ounce and not too much. For instance, one of the writers (a conservative) argues that mass immigration will not benefit America, but ultimately ‘America was built on the mass immigration of optimists’. I guess there needs to be a balanced dose of both sides.

On a side-note, reading The Economist makes me feel more and more pessimistic about the world… is it because of the coverage, or are world affairs really that gloomy and glum?

Back in Competition

A recent article on Slate.com revisited the theme of competition, something I’ve been writing about (here and here) in response to their articles. Ray Fisman discusses studies on whether man or women are more competitive and whether any difference is explained by nature or nurture.

More importantly perhaps, he questions the significance of competition in our world and whether it is a good thing at all. I believe, like many other things, a balance has got to be struck somehow. Once we reach a certain threshold whereby competition achieves positive gains, its cost will start outweighing benefits.

Look whos trailing....
Look who's trailing....

But perhaps the problem isn’t one of female passivity—many have claimed that if women ran the world, there wouldn’t be any wars, and anyone who has read testosterone-driven Wall Street accounts like Liar’s Poker, or more recently House of Cards, might question whether all-out competition is the best way of managing our economy. If competition is nurture rather than nature, perhaps we’d all be better off if we lost a little of our warrior instincts.

I know it sounds rather like an economic analysis but this applies for practically everything. We are entering an age of sophistication where competition basically consist of sub-units of collaboration, which is in turn divided into sub-units of competition. Just think about it, when we work at a company, we may be competing with our colleagues for attention from boss but the whole department, together with the boss is collaborating to compete against other departments and other bosses to a higher level and the company on the whole is collaborating to compete against a rival company and the industry as a whole (perhaps beverages) is competing against another (say food, they’re all competing for consumers’ stomach space). Competition and collaboration are not ends of a spectrum but co-evolutionary forces that shapes the world and our sophisticated activities.

To Read, or Not

It sometimes appear to me amazing how highly people think of textbooks and course books. It makes me feel like writing one; perhaps one that teaches people when they should be using their textbooks. A textbook is basically course material that is used to teach you on a subject and when you have learnt about the stuff, there’s little need to do a wholesale revisit, unless you’re confident you’ve forgotten everything.

Why should you torture yourself by relearning everything you learnt and frustrating yourself with some minor definition deviations your memory have insisted upon and trying to ‘re-memorize’ the ‘right definition’? And more importantly, if you can learn the subject or whatever you’re trying to learn without a textbook, why bother to get one?

A textbook has a couple of main uses, some of which concerns the students and others are mainly preoccupations of teachers and textbook writers. The functions students are usually concerned about are explanation and representations while those teachers are interested is includes those, and in addition, the standardization function. It’s not difficult to see why this is so, students are hoping to learn something from the textbook; the explanations helps them understand and possibly provide them a means of explaining the concepts to themselves and others while the representation gives students a means of expressing the ideas and concept on paper (ie allowing them to take exams).

The teachers would love textbooks for those two facts since they relieve them somewhat of their teaching responsibilities but more importantly, it helps them standardize what their students learn and cope with queries that they might have. This is especially important for more contentious issues in the subject that has yet to be resolved by experts and the syllabus prescribes some default stand on the matter for time being.

As a student, one should see the textbook more as a guide than an authority and use it accordingly. Going through it once and understanding the concepts one seeks to master is basically all that the textbook should offer. A slow learner might revisit it a couple of times to grasp a concept or to master the explanations fully; and occasionally one could browse through it as a reference for the way they represent certain information (in the form of diagrams, charts and such) but it is difficult to gain anything more than that on repeated revisits to the textbook.

The ideal usage of a textbook is to synthesize the stuff from different sources together with it on your notes and chucking them aside when you’re doing your revision – rely just on your personal notes (those that aggregate information from your readings of textbooks, your prescribed readings and lecture notes). Of course, this advice is more for students who revise consistently and are wholly familiar with the content which they’re sitting an exam for.

Practical Intelligence

Not Acting Smart
Not Acting Smart

I got to know about this book through a friend who was exploring topics that ranged from manipulating personality test results to acting smart in front of employers. It’s a great boon that this is not the kind of book that teaches you to act smart. Karl Albrecht writes realistically about how we can go about making ourselves more intelligent in practical situations. There are many ideas in the book I’ve thought about previously but failed to put into concrete concepts as he did. I must say Karl did a wonderful job.

Like most of the other books on thinking, Karl discusses the make-up of the brains, the way different lobes on the brain controls different stuff and how they work together in concert and then he draws some meaningful speculation on the way we think. There are many speculations which are largely unproven in neuro-sciences but are well known in the field of psychology. Never mind the actual theories, Karl shows us how they might be useful for aiding us discover our mind’s potential. He firms up the concept of ‘Affirmative Thinking’, which I think is a very important idea in our lives. We’ve cease to be gatekeepers of our mind in this media age, often pushed around, influenced by the people who are in turn controlled by others around as well as prevailing culture and fads. To accept that we are often being bombarded by thoughts and ideas of others and we often take them as if they’re our own is the first step to controlling our thinking and helping us steer ourselves towards healthy thinking and mental habits.

Karl recommends simple methods to help us regain control of our minds and direct our attention so that we can tap on our mental habits, thinking preferences and styles to aid us with daily thinking, problem-solving and just plain existing in our complex world. I’m interested in the implication of Karl’s ideas on education and learning. He has another book I’m looking forward to read, Social Intelligence, which he actually wrote before this book.