Review: SPQR

The Romans too wondered where they came from. To them, a city as mighty as theirs could not possibly have been of an obscure origin. So it was Aeneas, who fled the destruction of Troy, that Romulus could trace his lineage back to. To the Romans reading Aeneid, they must’ve been pleased at the thought that after ten centuries of the destruction of Troy by the Greeks, it was them, the descendants of the Trojan hero, that came to dominate the whole world.

The reality, however, couldn’t have been more different. Rome most definitely had no relation to the mythical Troy. It definitely was not a sophisticated city in its origin. The vivid, heroic tales of the early Romans were largely inventions of the later Romans, projecting their world and ideals into their past. The history of Rome was as much history of Rome the city as the history of a people trying to understand what defined them and what separated them from the others. This was one of the two impressions Mary Beard’s SPQR left me with.

The other was that the story painted by the elites was only one side of the coin. This may be obvious, but the books written by the Romans (elite Romans, for others didn’t leave much written records) themselves painted their world in quite a black and white fashion. The decline of morals and liberty, the increase of vices and the popularity of gladiatorial combat, the turmoils and crises surrounding each imperial succession were common themes. An emperor overweening, the Senate oppressed, its people distracted by bread and circuses, such was Rome in the books of Tacitus, and countless other Roman historians and moralists.

But the people of Rome most definitely saw their life in a very different light. When Cicero bemoaned at the loss of liberty, he had much to express his contempt against the uneducated and corrupted mass. It was the Roman people, he said, that foolishly entrusted all powers into the hands of Pompey. It was this corrupted mass that raised Caesar above all. He lamented at the Senate’s loss of power and authority. He predicted the upcoming anarchy and the subjection of Rome under the whims of a tyrant. But never did he reflect beyond the surface on the nature of the rise of the dynasts.

The Roman people were foolish to pin their hopes on the empty promises of the demagogues. What other choice did they have? Was it to Cato, whose principles were lifted from that of Plato’s Republic, yet wasted no time in supporting the continuing oppression of the mass? Was it to Cicero himself, a champion of the Republic, a champion more so in the art of exploiting the sorry rubes who were his tenants? Was it to the body of the Senate, composed of such illuminating figures as Cato and Cicero, and others of an inferior quality still, of which its own corruption and disdain towards the populace was beyond any saving?

When Caesar lavishly distributed bread and cash to the mass, he had not the people in mind, but only their support which was to raise him to the height of power. Cicero was quite right in spotting that. But little did he consider that for the ne’er-do-wells, choosing the Senate would only mean a continuation of their oppression without the relief provided by a generous tyrant. Put simply, liberty was not worth starving for. So the people chose the tyrant and his successors, and Cicero paid with his life defending the empty principles of a corrupt oligarchy.

Review: The Kindly Ones

I must say the ending left a sour taste in my mouth. The story just stopped. Never mind there was no light at the end of the tunnel. There was not even an end to the tunnel.

Did Aue go mad at the end? Why did he do what he did? If he became mad, why was he able to tell the story in such calmness and clarity up until the end? Or was he never crazy in the first place? What about national socialism? He never relinquished his views. Did the war and everything horrible that happened in the war make him give up? Or did his own crimes make him give up? Did he give up?

A million questions went unanswered. I guess that is perhaps what the author intended.

Aue was a fascinating character. I took pity on him, but at the same time, much like his unlucky friend Thomas, I was disappointed. Aue knew the answer and knew what things could’ve been. Yet at every crossroad with a way out, he turned the other side. Out of his ego and out of his despair, he’d rather be destroyed than be saved. Aue knew it himself better than anyone: national socialism was but an excuse; an excuse for him to matter, to rebel against everything he saw that was against him. Against his mother, his step father, and his sister, whom he loved too much, Aue was a child, forever in rebellion, cursing at this world which wouldn’t let him have it his way. National socialism didn’t matter. The Jews didn’t matter. The dirty work didn’t matter. He was hurt, yet deep inside he wanted it to be that way.

Aue reminded his audience he was not afraid of death. Yet time and time again, he instinctively avoided it, consciously ran away from it, doing everything he could to prevent it. His murder of Thomas, a man of tremendous crime, yet of no guilt against Aue, was perhaps the right ending. With Berlin burning, among ruins and corpses, Aue was in hell. Perhaps that is what Jonathan Littell is trying to convey. The hell, flames rising to the sky, filled with the smell of corpses and gasoline, of urine and blood, never left Aue. He was in hell and still is.

The scariest of all, the most unpleasant feeling after reading this book: what would I do in Aue’s shoes? Surrounded by madness, plagued by a haunting past, would I be any different? All too likely, I too would be in hell.

There Is Meaning In Sadness

I finally got around to watch Inside Out. Moments of the movie reminds me of a very different sort of book, Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. In the movie, sadness however depressing it can be has its meaning. It is sadness that eventually brings joy. Joy or happiness isn’t the only thing that matters in life. Much like that in the book, Frankl, through his experience surviving Nazi concentration camps, explains that even great suffering has its meaning. The book takes it a step further, declaring that the pursue of happiness should not be the end game. Confusion, anger, suffering, each of these moments has its meaning and rightful place in one’s life.

This resonates with me a lot. Often time, many of us don’t just suffer from unpleasant things that happen to us, but we also suffer because we’re suffering. You see, the very fact that we’re not happy is seen as a bad thing. And we suffer a second time for that. One of the most eye-opening parts of the book was those declaring that life is inherently meaningful. It is up to us to give each moment of our life a meaning. Our life is our book. Each page represents a moment. Each page awaits each of us, its reader, to give it meaning. At the end of the book, what does the whole book mean? We won’t find out until we reach the very end. But precisely because of that, we have to meak each page worthwhile. Moments of agony too give us something. It is up to us to make sense of them and to make them meaningful. There shouldn’t be a pursue of happiness. Life should be a pursue of meaning; happiness arrives as a by-product from a meaningful life.

The above should come naturally as the conclusion if one views matters from a stoic perspective. But for the longest time, I didn’t see it. I’m glad I see it now.

So, You Want To Wake Up Early?

A friend of mine has recently asked me for some tips for waking up early. To this friend, and to anyone what wants to adopt a regular schedule, my answer is to simply do two things, of which sleeping early is neither. Surprised? Well, just read on.

For the most part of my life up to this point, I had not been an early riser. I had no schedule, and had never known what it was like with one. Back in University, if the first lecture started at eight o’clock, I would force myself to wake up at seven. If it didn’t start until afternoon, I would wake up around lunch time. At night, I went to bed only when I felt exhausted from what I was doing. That meant my bedtime would range anywhere from eleven at night to three in the morning. Occasionally, I would be so tired that I actually went to bed at eight, but that’s besides the point. The point is, having no schedule whatsoever, I never used to sleep early on purpose. I vaguely knew my no-schedule schedule was bad for myself, but didn’t care enough to fix it; nor did I know how. Then, at some point in 2014, I decided to become an early riser. And that changed my life.

In the fall of that year, by accident I ended up sleeping at around the same time for a few weeks. As a result, I was also able to wake up naturally at the same time quite consistently. Since the second week, the changes had become very noticeable and the benefits were significant. Throughout the day, my energy level was stable and there was no need for coffee. I was able to focus much better at work. I felt happier and developed a more optimistic outlook about life. Now looking back, I can confidently say adopting a regular schedule was the best thing that happened to me in the entire year of 2014.

In the beginning of this post, I said for anyone who wants to adopt a regular schedule, he or she just has to do two things, or I should perhaps say, to follow two principles. One is a desire to achieve discipline in life. The other is to adopt an attitude of no-compromise. These two things are the means to an end; waking up early simply follows as a result. In order to explain how the means can lead to our desired end, let us first consider the implication of these two principles.

Some consider discipline a fancy word. Fancy or not fancy, the basis of the word is to enforce order, but not just any kind of order: having discipline is to ensure adherence to a preordained order. As a child if I didn’t follow my parents’ words, I would be disciplined because I had violated an agreement with them (however one-sided that might be). The same can be said of a soldier leaving his station before his hour of watch expires. He will be disciplined for violating an agreement with his superior. When it comes to ourselves, we establish agreements with our own mind, mediating a set of orders out of many conflicting needs and desires. Some of us promise themselves that they shall show up for class on time. Some concede they must exercise daily. Others decide to wake up early and use that time for some meaningful work. These are agreements we make with ourselves. They are contracts in which we are both the party and the counterparty, the debtor and the creditor.

But are these contracts binding? We may promise ourselves that we will always preview lecture materials the night before each class, but may end up never even opening up the textbook. We may decide to wake up at seven o’clock from Monday to Friday, but always end up hitting the snooze button. In a situation like these, in the case of a breach of contract, will we hold ourselves accountable? In other words, shall we discipline ourselves? Let’s look at what happens without discipline. As a child, I would never go home on time if I would always get dinner regardless of the time. As a soldier, if my superior never bothered to punish me, why would I ever show up to for my watch? With myself, it is the same. I never consistently previewed any of my lecture materials since I never felt any consequence of not doing so (except on the exam day, which I always considered to be too far away a worry). I used to never sleep on time, since I could always snooze my alarm for an extra hour or just catch up on sleeping in class. Reflecting on these past experiences, I conclude that motivation alone will not achieve desired results. Without discipline, my motivation withered away like blooms in a storm. To achieve our goals, be it waking up early or reading a book every week, we must build ourselves a framework in which sound discipline can be established. Only then can we set out to achieve our goals with success.

What might such a framework be consisted of? The Romans used to say a good commander is one whom his soldiers fear more than their enemies. Awe-inspiring to some indeed, nonetheless, we don’t want that to be the basis of our framework. Rather than winning through the fear of self-punishment, our framework should win us over by proving helpful in fulfilling our goals and to nurture our own personal growth. Discipline in any form of punishment is only the henchman, not the supreme leader. We want to build something that rewards us generously for obedience and punishes ourselves just sufficiently otherwise. It must also stand the test of time. We shall not grow tired or to hate our framework. Nor shall we become indifferent to it.

What does all this mean? For a start, I think for everything we want to achieve, we must first formulate an endgame. That is, for each goal of ours, we must thoroughly analyze the rewards from fulfilling it and the consequences of failing to do so. Take the goal of waking up early for an example. What is good about waking up? Why would anyone want to do that? For myself, it is the quiet, calm one hour or so of time in the morning before everyone else wakes up (well, it’s more like before the ones that I know and care about wake up). I spend this first hour first in writing and then in reading. Afterwards, I usually feel alert and accomplished; in other words, I feel good. For me, that is the reward, and the consequence of not waking up early is the lack of it. To drive my point home, if I manage to wake up at six, my reward comes from that one hour in which I get to write and read with ample energy and motivation. If I fail, I have to live that day with some regret. Since I really crave for the reward, I really, really want to wake up early. This is how I stay motivated day after day.

For the reader, your reason for waking up early might be very different. You may have decided to go for a morning run. Maybe you want to get to work an hour earlier. Or perhaps you simply appreciate the feeling of waking up an hour or two before everyone else. Whatever it may be, observe the positive thoughts or feeling you associate with an early riser. Make that your reward. For the impatient, this is it. Go and visualize the happiness being an early riser brings you, and get ready for your renewed motivation to kick in. For others, and for everyone like myself, who need a little extra work on our mind, read on.

It is imperative to come to a concrete goal with clear-cut rewards and equally clear consequences in the case of failure. It is also just as important to make it easier to achieve our desired results. Afterall, all of us wish to reduce the load of burden placed upon us, and none desire to live their days with regrets. In our case, let us then consider how to make it easier to actually wake up early. In order to physically wake up with ease, one must have already rested sufficiently. The best way to achieve that? Duh, it’s to sleep early; just turn off the light at ten and go to bed. It’s as simple as that. I am done here. You all can now go home and go to bed! Say hi for me to whomever you meet in your dreams… Or, am I done? If it’s really this simple, then how come so many of us, including myself, have long struggled with it? It’s easy to promise ourselves that the light goes off at ten tonight, but exactly how many of us will actually follow through? There is more at play here than simply deciding to go to bed at a certain time.

Earlier in the post, I said that for myself without discipline, my motivations would wither away like blooms in a storm. It is the truth for many of us. Sleeping on time is but one of the many conflicting interests in our mind. Some of us want to watch that one last video on Youtube. Some want to read that one last comment on Facebook. Others want to finish that one last chapter of their books. The need to sleep on time must compete against all these other desires, rendering it near impossible. But going to bed early and sleeping on time doesn’t have to be a need, a pre-requisite for something in the future. If we can turn the need of sleeping on time into a desire in itself, then it will take on a new life against all the other desires in our mind. Chances are it will actually win this time around.

How do we go about achieving that? In order to do so, we must go back to our first principle which is to formulate a goal with rewards and consequences in the case of failure. In this case, we will transform the need of sleeping early into a goal. The rewards for sleeping early should be fairly self-explanatory. Nonetheless, let us examine the list of benefits closely for exercise. If we sleep early, we get more sleep before it’s time for us to wake up, and hence it is physically easier for us to sleep. We will get to enjoy our morning with much more energy too. In addition, if we sleep early, we avoid all the activities that everyone else does, which almost always lead to a large amount of time being wasted. Afterall, what is the point of watching ten extra cat videos or some person being funny on Youtube? One thing is for sure: it won’t make you feel great the next morning.

The consequences of failing to sleep on time are also easy to derive. In addition to wasting valuable time at night, come the next morning, the possibility of an early rise is inevitably diminished. Even if some of us do manage to force their eyes to open on time, chances are, due to a lack of sleep, they will be so exhausted physically and feeling incredibly drained mentally to enjoy their morning. The failure to sleep on time has greatly reduced the possibility of us accomplishing the feat of waking up early, or enjoying the rewards in full when we do accomplish it. With this being said, we have now come to an important point. Observe that in our case a failure to secure a reward diminishes significantly the effect of the next one. In our framework, we’re building a chain of goals with rewards that compound as we succeed in each of our goals, one after another. The accomplishment of a prior goal will amplify the reward of the next one, whereas its failure will reduce the chance of even achieving the next goal. This chain reaction forms the central pillar of our framework.

In our framework, we first decide on a desired outcome. We transform the outcome into a concrete, clear-cut goal that is actionable. Given this action, we define rewards and consequences in the case of failure. Next, we look for possible actions that make obtaining our rewards easier. For one or two most promising ones, we define rewards and corresponding consequences. In our case, our desired outcome, which is to wake up early, now depends on the outcome of sleeping early. We then look for a third level of possible actions that make it easier to obtain the rewards from sleeping on time. For me personally, it is reading before bedtime. For the reader, it might be meditating, or taking a hot bath. We keep repeating this process and find more levels of actions that each helps us get to the rewards of the next action. The end result is a chain of goals in concrete and actionable form. Each step along the way may either amplify or diminish the outcome of the next one.

At this point, some may point out that a single point of failure in the chain may lead to a collapse of the entire system. They question the feasibility of such a framework. Can we really last through each of the goals, without mess-ups, to reach our final, desired outcome? The answer is a resolute YES. Indeed, for a cluster of machines, the probability of a collapse due to a failure in a single machine can be astoundingly high. However, I believe this framework will work for us because as humans we behave very differently from machines. Our pride and ego play an important role in our ability to tackle seemingly impossible challenges. In the beginning, I said in order to reach our desired outcome, the means are consisted of two principles. The first is to instill a desire for discipline in our mind, which we have done by building our framework. The second, which will help our framework stand the test of time, is to adopt an attitude of no-compromise. That is, let our ego do the fighting for us.

When we achieve our goals, it is the reward that will keep us thirsty for achieving even more. But if we fail even one step within our chain of goals, we put the whole system at risk. If I were to fail to pick up a book to read before bedtime and instead stay on my computer, I would likely fail to sleep on time. If I were to miss my bedtime, I would likely fail to wake up early. One small mess-up may lead to everything unaccomplished. Often times, It is the dread of the latter that keeps me on my toes. When I try to convince myself that reading one more article on the Verge is fine, I can’t convince myself that’s the case precisely because I am afraid to set off a chain reaction which will lead to many regrets the next day. If in the end I did indeed mess it all up, I would have to live with it. We all have to live with it. With every failure in achieving a goal, we will feel frustration. We have to live with that. It is the pain that will keep us more vigilant next time. We are human and we make mistakes. But we ought to feel guilty about our mistakes, if they happened due to our own complacency.

The beauty in our framework, I think, is that it allows very little room for compromise. And that means there is even less room for complacency. Thoughts like “it’s fine if I just watch this one last thing on Youtube instead of picking up my book, as long as I still turn my computer off on time” are inherently contradictory to the principles of such a framework. If such a compromise were made, it would inevitably reduce our chances of waking up on time the next day. We must live with this fact. Successes in our framework build on top of each other; failures can compound just as much. A mindset of “I am not going to compromise with these other desires” will ensure the maximal chance of success to achieve our final outcome. We will enjoy a much greater sense of accomplishment when we get there, as along the way, each one of us will have accomplished many, many other things as well.

Before I close, I must make clear the point that the framework we have set out to build in this post is not suitable for everything in life. In our framework, there is no room for competing goals. To the reader, it means if you want to write a 15-page long paper each night starting at eight o’clock, then waking up at six in the morning is unlikely to happen. A goal that depends heavily on external factors is not a great fit, either. Our framework won’t work on goals such as winning a lottery or a marathon race. Most importantly, don’t ever attempt to base your entire life on such a system. Our life is filled with conflicting needs and desires. It is much too risky, not to mention utterly impossible, to transform one’s whole life into a single chain of events, each compounding on one another’s outcome, be it success or failure. Our framework is best suited for achieving a clear and concrete outcome that is easily monitored and self-evaluated. Each step along the way should be constructed in such a way that depends as minimally as possible on external factors.

During my months of struggling to maintain the regular schedule which I discovered by accident last year, I’ve learned many lessons and actualized a rough sketch of the framework outlined in this post. These days, for many other things in life, I apply the same principles. As a result, I’ve had to live through quite a number of guilt-ridden-days. But I’ve also benefitted from this process tremendously. This blog, now I hope is starting to take better shape, is the indirect result of one of my goals: to write about something everyday. I hope this post is of use to my friend, and to everyone working hard to further their goals in life. Best of luck.

Review: Starting Point

Hayao Miyazaki is a conflicting person. One second optimistic and uplifting, the next disillusioned and bitter. Miyazaki would at times exclaim the world was heading to a meaningless place before backtracking and extolling the beauty of innocence and the promising future found in children. He would cheer nihilistically at the end of the bubble era, while deeply sympathetic and regretful towards the declining fortune of the toddling new age, now known as the lost generation. Miyazaki’s opinions have shifted back and forth throughout the years. His bitterness was often softened by optimism; his idealism dampened by his disillusionment.

Hayao Miyazaki has questions. Some of which he had found answers which were turned into films. Some he had found through working on films. Some remain unresolved to this day. At times, Miyazaki was at a loss, not knowing which step to take. There were occasions he would take his time, and figure it out before moving on. Other times, he would move on regardless. In this book are his moments of confusion and clarity, entwined with disappointments and excitements. In this book is Mizayaki the person, highlighted by his outspoken and frank personality, not always confident or sure of himself, yet always optimistic in finding the right path forward.

My Neighbor Totoro, along with Spirited Away, left deep impressions upon me as a child. I don’t remember much of either film, but when I think back to them from time to time, warm feelings always fill up inside me. In this book are essays worth to be read time and time again. With each read, hopefully I get closer to the root of the films Miyazaki created and to the root of my own childhood.

Review: Lean In

“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” is one of my favorite lines from Lean In. My take on this book is going to be a little different from others; less focus on feminism, more on its overall usefulness as a self-help book. “The best way to make room for both life and career is to make choices deliberately – to set limits and stick to them.” speaks to me as much as I imagine it speaks to women around the world. The rest of the book feels the same way.

Sheryl starts the book with an emphasis on the importance of sitting at the table, speaking up, balancing the expectation of being liked and the ambition to succeed. It takes me back to some of my earlier internships in which I always sat at the back of a room, never spoke up, and was always worried if others liked me enough. To some degree, I still have these issues. Being a recent graduate, I’m worried whether or not I have the credentials (chops) to voice my opinions in front of a roomful of senior engineers. I often fear that if I speak up, I might open myself up to harsh criticism. These first chapters of the book are my favorites. They push me to face my own fears and encourage me to stand up to them. It’s reassuring to hear that my problems are real and there are practical ways to overcome them.

The chapter on the myth of doing it all is another of my favorites. It reminds me of a speech I’ve heard recently, which was about one’s purpose in life. The speaker gave three points on the subject of living: to live is to cherish each moment, to love, and to matter. What’s a better way to make it matter than becoming a leader? To lean in is to embrace ambition. The myth of doing it all tells us to focus on what truly matters and are important. Tradeoffs must be made. And what needs to be done should be completed in the most efficient way possible.

The last part of this book is a compilation of several essays written by a set of men and women, each reflecting on his or her career. Those chapters I found not as effective as the main part of the book, partly because I was used to Sheryl’s writing style by that point in the book; the essays also felt a bit repetitive. But each of the essays, if read standalone, is actually quite well-written, nicely connecting the author’s story to the theme of Lean In.

This book was a very satisfying and at times eye-opening read. It’s a great book for anyone who wants to make a difference in his or her life.

2015 EOY Goals

I’m setting some goals for myself. For those who wonder why I’m doing this when it’s almost the last month of the year: I don’t believe in new year resolution and I start a goal whenever I think I’m ready. Sometimes I give up, sometimes I persist through. The most important thing about goals is to track the progress and evaluate oneself accordingly. In this post, I set out to list a number of things to do by the end of the year and how I will evaluate my performance.

From now and until new year 2016, I will closely monitor my performance in the following five goals:

  1. Sleep better.
  2. Build a sustainable and manageable budget.
  3. Actively listen to one person a day.
  4. Record two current events a day, of which one must be a new event.
  5. Each day, find one interesting thing or fact that I didn’t know before.

The above are meant to help me work on these two areas: interpersonal communication and an understanding in what goes on around me. In order to effectively achieve this, the very first thing I must do is to get better rest. When I’m sleepy, I can’t think of anything but to get through the day and go home to sleep. A sustainable budget, at first glance, doesn’t have to do with communication or knowledge of what goes around. But it puts me at ease. I have a tendency to overspend, which often makes me really nervous and takes away precious energy that I could otherwise make good use of. Point 3 – 5 are three concrete actions I will be doing. I intend to monitor them in the following way.

  1. On a daily basis, track any progress I make along the way. Jot down notes or save the news I have come across that I think will be useful to come back later.
  2. On a daily basis, engage in meaningful conversations. Try to understand what the other person is trying to say and what his/her feelings are. The goal here is to be a good listener. Jot down notes about each meaningful encounter right afterwards.
  3. On a weekly basis, look back on the notes I have made in the past week. Organize and reflect upon them. Ask myself the following questions:
    • What did I achieve in the past week
    • Where did I fall short?
    • What are the reasons that I fell short?
    • What can I do to further my strong points and to work on my weaknesses? (Long-term and short-term)
    • What are the immediate actionable items for next week?

Around new year 2016, I will update with a one-month review regarding to these goals.