Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Das Happyend

The German word "das Happyend" was borrowed from English, and acquired a neuter gender (hence the article "das"). It's such an inconspicuously word - so pure, simple, and lasting. Indeed the concept is very intuitive in stories, plays, and novels. Yet the complexity of "das Happyend" as a real life phenomena is very much under-appreciated.

My life has been full of these "das Happyend" moments. Take the High School & University Go Tournament in 2005 for example. I had wanted a school tournament for a long time, in hopes of drawing together all the high school go clubs in the area. Seeing everything happen was absolutely stunning. I remember the day I got the email from CPAC telling me that they're willing to let us use their room. I was ecstatic! It was one of the three times in my life when I actually did a happy dance.

Running the actual tournament was more tedious than I had imagined. There were very few teams, so I paired the teams by hand. There was the problem of assigning tables. There were other problems that I didn't solve as well as I could. Thank god Edward Chung, president of the Canadian Go Association at the time, was there to help me. It's unfortunately that I didn't appreciate Edward's help as much back then - a grave mistake on my part. All in all, things went fine. I was happy. The tournament happened. Das Happyend.

Then I woke up the next day. Did whatever I had to do. Read for a bit. Slept.

Then I woke up a week later. Showered. Ate. Did whatever I had to do. Slept.

I ran the same tournament a couple more times.

I'm here, now.

Thing is, you can't really have a "happy ending" in life, because there is generally no real "ending" involved, unless you happened to die. Eventually you have to move on, keep living, and keep asking the question "Now what?"

This is why life this term has been the strangest thing ever. Every co-op term thus far has had a "das Happyend" story attached to it. Looking back, that's what all my co-op terms had in common: I consistently chose an adventurous path. Of course I needed help at times in seeing the obvious, as you guys helped me with choosing San Francisco, and yes I've once I chickened out of the real adventure. Yet I'd be pretty damn bored if I just aimed for or picked any half-decent job! Adventure! Yes! Fun! Yes! Excitement! Challenge! Exploration! Home!

Every time I come back to Waterloo, it almost feels like I've cheated death. There's that "ghostly" feeling, that confusion that would last for at least several days, and sometimes weeks. This term, this "ghostly" feeling was really prominent. I resigned to the thought that the best of co-op had already passed. Naturally, my expectations had increased over time, so I didn't know if there will be many things to look forward to in the near future. I didn't even try very hard in applying for co-op jobs and preparing for interviews.

So is this really the end? If so "das Happyend" would be the most awful thing you could have. You might as well replace the phrase "and they lived happily ever after" with the phrase "and from then on they lived a not-to-spectacular life, always doting on the time when there was a story worth telling".

I have to admit that until a few days ago, I did feel trapped. "Now what?" is a depressing question if you don't have a sufficient answer. I knew that Microsoft China would reject me. The other positions weren't bad, but they was no thrill associated with any of the positions. Normality. Mediocrity. Maybe the best I could do is to readjust and refocus while the wind is calm, to prepare for the next storm. Maybe I should have quit co-op.

Yet life has a better plan for me - perhaps one good enough to be considered an adventure. I wouldn't call it a happy ending, though. A happy ending is something you at least had to work for. I didn't. I applied to the job without any intent on taking it. I didn't go to their information session (because talking about math with a potential new friend was more interesting and productive). I'm not sure if I left a good impression when I checked google calendar on the recruiter's laptop, when he asked about my availability for second round interviews. Heck, I didn't even get second round interviews!

Well, I guess I was too pro for second round interviews -- because next term, I will be working as a Data Science intern at Facebook.

End of Entry

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The economy of cluelessness

The Office According to the Office is a must read, especially for anyone who watches The Office (if you don't, don't worry, I don't either). Although the post is written semi-tongue-in-cheek, much of it is quite relevant. A natural question to ask after reading the link is: do we really need those pathological organizations, those clueless people, and the friction they create?

We can't easily get rid of the middle 1/3 of our population. Some of us try. That's what start-up culture is about, isn't it? Being more creative by constantly being at the start of MacLeod's cycle? Globalization is also putting pressure on getting rid of the clueless: increased competition means firms have more incentive to produce more efficiently, with less people. Goodbye clueless! Wait, why were you even here in the first place?

I think a potential answer to that question comes from an interesting dilemma: right now, only a fraction of us is needed to feed the entire population. However, because of the way the monetary system is set up, each of us needs to produce something society deems useful in order to put food on the table. As supply overshoots demand, we fight for the demand. Making a contribution becomes harder and harder the more efficient we get, even though efficiency should theoretically make lives easier.

That's what the clueless might be here for: to add friction, to mooch off of others, so at least they can be fed. It's like how in the Great Depressions, the Canadian government hired young men to build roads to nowhere in exchange for being fed (and not cause trouble). Yay for busywork.

High supply and low demand – I doubt our monetary system is built for this. Parkinson's Law states that demand will increase to match supply. Keynesian economists say that we should artificially increasing demand so the economy can grow. Is that really the best? In an ideal world, shouldn't supply be made to match demand, not the other way around? Efficiency should not make people compete doggedly to become more efficient: it should give people more time to do what matters to them the most: discovering new things, learning about the world, being creative, or even spending time leisurely.

Think about it, wouldn't the world be a better place if instead of the distracting everyone with bureaucracy and slowing the world down, the clueless class did nothing? Nothing. Free time. Zero. Of course there are problems with this- lots of problems. Some people like the feeling of importance associated with doing something. Other non-clueless people might want to pretend to be clueless so they can have infinite free time as well (a bit like how the smart guys caused the economic crisis).This change would not be "stable".

Dawkin writes in The Selfish Gene: “An evolutionarily stable strategy or ESS is defined as a strategy which, if most members of a population adopt it, cannot be bettered by an alternative strategy.” For example, the strategy “if resident then fight, if intruder then flee” is an ESS, while “adopt any baby you see” is not (think about what would happen if a majority of the population followed that strategy, but a mutant did not). There is thus no incentive to “cheat” (or deviate from the norm). An economical system should be like an ESS: it should assume that people people will do whatever they can to maximize goal achievement, and it should give no incentive for people to “cheat”. Communism fails badly at this. Capitalism does slightly better, but I think we're on a local maximum, not a global one.

All this is still very abstract. A full sketch of the economics of an ideal world will probably require more work, perhaps by someone who is better versed in economics than I am.

End of Entry

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Fear of Mediocrity

University used to be a time for reflection. It was time well spent away from all distractions to figure out how to live the 40-60 years ahead of you, what to accomplish within that short time. I wonder how much of this kind of musing still occurs today, in the daily lives of undergraduate university students. I won't expect there to be many.

Perhaps they already figured out what they want to do, where they “fit” in society. Maybe they feel that the economy does not allow for that kind of luxury – the luxury of doing something beyond mere stagnation. Well, idealism is a luxury, isn't it?

Norman Bethune is said to have feared mediocrity. He had a peculiar intolerance towards it. Bethune is a surgeon who helped the Chinese resistance against the Japanese invasion, and is one of the few westerners hailed as a hero by the Chinese. In some sense he is the perfect idealist – he gave up the comforts of Canada to work in the battlefields in China, because that's where people needed him the most. Yet his lonely life in China made his life anything but ideal. During his days in China he longed for an English newspaper, yet what he got was a case of blood poisoning that resulted in his death in a tiny Hebei village.

It's fitting to recall this saying about how you should aim for the moon, because even if you don't make it you'd land on one of the stars. What they fail to mention is that the journey to the stars is both lonely and lengthy, and the years spent in the darkness of space are irredeemable. In fact, you often don't know where you're going, and may never get there! The universe is big – so incredibly big – and the chances that we can make a true impact are so tiny that some of us think of it as negligible.

If idealism is not luxurious, what does mediocrity have to offer? The work-8-hour-days-till-you're-40-then-have-a-midlife-crisis plan? The rat race? The push to publish, publish, publish? I'd say that the concept of mediocrity is much like the concept of degeneracy in Mathematics: you see the endless possibilities, the countless dimensions that can be spanned by the hyperplane, only to find that all the parameters cancel out and you are left with a single point in the space. The mediocre life is also the unexamined life, and as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.

I remember in philosophy class in grade 12, we had to answer the question, “Is Socrates a great man?” As I loved being the devil's advocate, I wrote a piece about how Socrates was not a great man. My argument was this: many other people at the time may have mused about life as well, and had similar ideas. Socrates could have been an average man who happened to be vocal and have a large follower. Thinking back, I'm ashamed of having argued that. A man who could think like Socrates is indeed rare. Besides, would anyone else but the idealist die for his ideas?

You may comment, quite rightly so, that the insane person may do the same. You may go further to say that the idealist is insane. What is more precious than a simple life enjoyed, pleasure maximized, and happiness sustained? If Bethune could live again, would he have stayed in Canada?

I hope that even if Bethune choose to stay in Canada, he would do so not because of a shift in ideology, but as a result of knowing that China is not as glamorous as he had thought. He may not choose China again, but I don't think he would stoop to mediocrity. He will shine in other ways.

Mediocrity is too safe. The riskiest thing one can do in today's society is to play safe. It guarantees the bare minimum out of all that life offers: the dull and unexamined life that have zero impact on your person and the world. It is a life that you can live over and over and over again without growth. No matter how little chance we have of making a difference in ourselves, our own world or the world at large, that chance is worth taking. Because really, what else can we live for?

I sit here befuddled. Where would I go in the next 40-60 years? I don't know. I know for sure, though, that I will continue to be marveled by the beauty and intricacy inherent in our world. Sometimes I feel as if life is saying to me in that whimsical voice, “Come on Lisa, you should be able to figure everything out now! All the clues are out there, just put them together...” I wonder if many others hear that same voice.

End of Entry