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Monthly Archives: November 2006

I’ve been thinking about getting up bright and early lately. Back in Hong Kong, with the pressure off, I’m getting up leisurely at around 9:00 AM, drifting into the day at a leisurely pace before trying to get things into gear for a semi-productive four hour run into the evening with a view to getting enough work done to satisfy me.

What I’ve realised as I canter through life at this undemanding pace, is that to get up early is a very powerful thing. Time is an amazing resource, our most finite; the more we find hidden away the vaster the possibilities, and the more our boundaries can expand, and the more relaxing we can do and the more fun we can have. Who hasn’t wished for more time?

I’ve been looking around at how to get myself organised ship shape for getting up with the birds, even finding the widely distributed and sage advise of Steve Pavlina on the subject, in one of the most widely distributed self-improvement articles that one can find on the web. His tips, while useful and probably highly effective (I tried them for a month and they worked well, and then the exams were over) do miss out on a substantial point that is underplayed.

In fact I just alluded to this point. The most important way to get out of bed in the morning is to have a reason that makes it worthwhile. If you have something that can inspire you to get out of bed, because you want to do that thing, because you look forward to it, then you will have no trouble getting up no matter what time is asked of you to rise.

I’ll give you a personal example. On Wednesday, I agreed to play squash with a friend at 11:00AM. I was so keen to go and play squash (and I knew that i had to go buy a squash racket as well) that I was awake by 7:00, unable to sleep and quite fully wide awake. I got myself organised, buzzed around to set my things in order and was off at 10:00 to go shopping, normally a time when I would have just been getting to the end of breakfast and commencing a leisurely glance at the papers and the BBC for my news fix. This motivation, this reason, this purpose, is what enabled me to break just for that day my habit of late rising and instead be up at an early hour.

The flip side, and this is perhaps more of an interesting idea rather then a proved notion, is that this might be a reason that people tend to sleep so much nowadays, and sleep as late as they can. They have nothing that makes them want to get up, in fact they have something that they actively want to hide from. They do it through one of the most effective hiding mechanisms that people have: sleep. And so people sleep more and more, later and later, so that they can stretch out the good parts of the day, staying up late into the night, and minimise the time they can spend anticipating unpleasantness, arising as late as possible in the morning. At any rate it’s just an idea, but one that I can’t help feel fits the facts.

I’ve gone off fiction. That is a sweeping statement, so perhaps I should hedge my bets and clarify a little. I’ve gone of gritty, realistic fiction; set in the real world, with tight storylines, credible characters and tragedy anticipated in every page. They do not have the grip that I could rely on to be evoked by such works. I say this as someone who consumed Tom Clancy popcorn by the thousand page load.

My taste is developing a more escapist bent. I wish to read more alien works, things that are so distant from Earth that they become avenues to open the mind, not to explore the grim steps of mans mortal path. I suspect that JRR Tolkien is partially to blame, but I have had a strong interest in science fiction for a long time, and having last year read a huge pile of Drizzt et al, the trend has perhaps been accelerating. It will be a matter of finding the right quality of fantasy and science fiction writers.

The gap has been filled by non-fiction for now. For the first time in a long time, the UN Security Council, and institution I used to be obsessed with as a geeky MUNer has regained some interest for me, and I have been putting the vast archives of HKU to good use to supply me with some materials to build up my understanding of its role, decisions, actors, informal organisation and limitations again. The Public International Law course at Kings actually turned out to be of some use, as what could have been a demanding text which fuses many concepts of international law and institutional practice is instead quite easy sailing.

The other alternative that I have been contemplating is a return to philosophy. I spent a long time in the second year, especially at its end in reading what are the fundamental works. I worked my way through a substantial chunk of Plato’s dialogues, and though I wouldn’t pretend to remember them, I had the foresight to take, and hang on to, decent notes, which makes the dialogues substantially more accessible to me then they would have been otherwise at the second time around. I’m not entirely sure I’ll return to philosophy, but I may be inclined that way, and I shall see as it were whether I go that way again or not.

So I have this trimmed down and tailored contact list, and found myself in the same position very nearly that I had trimmed down the contact list to avoid. I was talking to the same few individuals, initiating the majority of my conversations with them and not really using the opportunity that I had to talk to the wider range of people left behind from the radical purges of June.

It seemed to me that the chance was here for a different response. Before I had pre-emptively eliminated, decided who was superflous deadweight, getting in the way of me finding those that I wanted to talk to. Now I decided there was a chance for outreach, to enlarge my world with slow and steady steps to regain contact with all those on my list.

For the past 15 days, I’ve been living this process. I’ve tried to start talking with more and more people on my list, especially the ones from FMGamer that I’ve not been talking to for a while due to my ambivalence about the site. I’ve instead decided that they’re still the same people that they were when I added them, and it was for a good reason usually (they were usually site staff, my record of reaching out into the unwashed masses is rather mediocre) and it would be both enjoyable and rewarding.

I haven’t confined this expansion to just the FMG people either, a move that I have more trepidation about. I’ve started to include all the lapsed friends, people who I know but haven’t really been keeping up with or making the effort to get in touch with. It’s been a more mixed experience with them. Some have responded well, others quite tepidly, others have not responded at all. I’ll make assessments of them at a later date.

Overall what its meant is that I’ve found more people to converse with and usually someone to pass a few hours with while I’m surfing the net or watching a tv show, allowing me to keep my multitrack mind occupied without feeling frustrated. Hopefully they have found it enjoyable and at least not a burden. Let’s see how long it will continue.

I recall a conversation with a teacher in the midst of my second year of university, where he sought to assure me that a mistake I made in class would not live long in the memory of others and I should not diminish my participation in class because of it. I recall it because of my reaction, which to him was surprising: why should I be ashamed of making a mistake?
If the response is perhaps not as clear as I perceive it to be, I shall elaborate. My reaction has always been that the sum of information in the world far exceeds my minute ability to assimilate knowledge. I can only know so much within the boundaries of time and human capacity. It follows that in certain aspects of my life I will make mistakes, perhaps on an ongoing and continuing basis, all the while unaware that I commit such egregious errors. At the very least things will be done in a sub-optimal manner.

My reaction, this unashamed commitment to making mistakes, is grounded in the realisation that the truism “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is absolutely true. In class a false statement is a beginning from which a teacher can correct, in life a mistake is a position from which someone else can begin to correct the position you find yourself in. You learn more from your mistakes, your efforts and your own false starts then you can ever learn from doing the perfect thing every time. You may not even understand why what you’re doing is right, if you haven’t done it wrong several times before.

What I find worse then error is indecision. The timidity of inaction, the paralysis of choice that is true damage, because without being committed nothing can be done to either solve the problem constructively or realise that you have a non-functional solution.

Perhaps what it boils down to is that I have little tolerance for wasted time, and time spent prevaricating on solutions, when the options have been considered, and weighed, where there is what the erudite Professor Raz calls an exclusionary reason for action – when you know what you ought to do – time spent in rationalisation and re-evaluation of an issue does not endear itself to me. Action has to be through, clearly thought out and then committed.

If you make a mistake, you wait for a proper point to asses your decision in the light of the new information that you have, and then you start again. Mistakes are part of life, and living is what we have to get on with.

I’ve been reading a biography of Gaius Julius Caesar, a man of tremendous ability uniquely positioned at what he was to make one of the defining moments of history. I know that the ‘great man’ theory of history has fallen out of vogue with the modern establishment, instead capitulating to the notion that great potentialities create the necessary people to rise to the challenge inherent in their exploitation. Yet when you read a life of the Pontifex Maximus himself, you find it hard to believe that many others could have stepped into the role, and undertaken the risks with the necessary audacity or met with the same success. But indeed before Caesar there was Sullla, and before Sulla, there was Marius. Great names long forgotten to the everyday man, but their exploits made everything Caesar did possible.
One aspect that I think personifies many great men, and Caesar especially, is that they transcend the limitations of their circumstances. The world admits of a certain number of possibilities and believes that there is a prescribed range of actions that can be engaged in. Caesar, perhaps unwittingly, occupied a unique position as an outsider that allowed him to see through the institutions of his age: The Roman Senate, The Tribunate, The Consuls and the Consularis and to recognise a crisis at their core that left them unable to respond to the challenges of an expanding Roman empire ruled by a notional commonwealth of citizens.

This trait I believe to be one of the markers of true greatness. People who can understand their world around them, and perceive the flaws that others do not believe exist, or to identify when there is a disconnect between reality and the popular conception. That opens up a perspective to action that can allow a person to redefine their world in a way that is conventionally thought impossible. It is this ability to understand that there are more realities then the common reality, that the underlying facts are nuanced and capable of interpretation.

Can all of us transcend our circumstances? I believe that this is so. Is all that is required the presence of a certain stubbornness of vision and a ruthlessness of execution? I believe that this is so. Do we only have to be firm enough in the conviction that we are right to persevere to defy the limits of all those who came before us? I believe that this is so. Can this be for both good and evil? I believe that you have to at least think you’re doing it for good. Even Caesar rationalised his dictatorship as an attempt to save the Republic from imminent collapse.

The concept of judgment is an unavoidable part of the life of both legal practioner and theologian. It is perhaps in fusion of these two distinct approaches to a common word that I craft my contextual understanding of the word when I talk of it now to you. We both crave to judge, be judged and to receive dispensation from judgment. As if humans weren’t complex enough.

At the heart of many a human being is the desire to be accepted, to belong. The cathartic act of belonging is so vital that many ascribe large social destructive groups to this same desire for social identity. If you support one football club, you define yourself (partially if you’re normal, entirely if you’re an ultra) by this identification with a group. This is a strongly judgmental drive, operating at the collective level. We talk of us and them, East and West and a multitude of variations of this concept. The idea is simple; us the great and good, against them the not so good and frankly mediocre. We may not vocalise it as that, but the judgment is collective and comprehensive; our values are better and righter then your values. And you may not know it, but it is okay becuase we do.

On the other hand we have a strong desire to be individuals, and not only to be individual but to be free from the consequences of our individuality. One of those trivial stories that encompass many a childhood for me is the day when a class mate got what may be described with faint exaggeration as a most ridiculous hair cut. When I met him, I looked, nodded and smiled. The greatfulness of his look was almost palpable; he told me that I was the first person who had seen him that day and not laughed. Its an event I’ve taken to heart as perhaps the strongest marker of the value of non-judgmental behaviour that I have ever encountered. There are other events, that in retrospect aslo should stand testament to me of the value of non-judgment, but my reader is wise and one example should suffice them.

And of course we have the desire to be judged. We want to know when we’re making gaffes, when we’ve erred or when there is an easier course available to us. We want the feedback, the reinforcement, the criticism that is so essential to any improvement of either methodology or individuality. We don’t want to be stuck in a rut, and certainly most people are aware that they are assessing themselves in a continual process as they interact with the rest of the world. At the same time of course, we don’t want this judgment to be too harsh, because the full fury of judicial scrutiny is often too harsh to be taken on an every case basis.

I have no idea how people balance these notions of their self and external judgment, or whether any question of balance is even viable. It seems that we clatter from one extreme to another, self-doubt (which is nothing more then pre-judging ourselves) to mass societal condemnation (which is collective judgment usually without facts) to victory and vindicatoin (judgments accepted to be worng) without any worries about the conceptual clarity of what we do on a daily basis or why we do it. I just know that not judging seems to go down with people a lot better then holding the standards of Cato or Gladstone, but at the same time, I find myself unable to refrain every day and in every circumstance from passing judgment.

Think of a person. Not a stranger. Preferably a friend. Now imagine them with no clothes on. Imagine it in detail. Bumps, curves, folds of fat, body hair. Now Imagine them taking a dump. Imagine them having sex. Imagine them having sex with someone specific. If you’re particularly daring, imagine it with you. You are no doubt feeling awkward by now, so I will desist. If you’re not, do it with a friend who is just a friend in mind. Perhaps one of the same gender to make things more clear.

This is what I call the human conception thesis. There is no snappy acronym, stop looking for one.

We think of people in a very particular way, depending on how we categorise them. But we never ever think of them in terms of basic biological function. We never think of people as people in the most common sense that we are all people. We just don’t. And that to me is interesting. I know this doesn’t apply to strangers, the notion of a sex symbol puts paid to that. The ultimate body detached from its consciousness is what a sex symbol represents.I don’t have any explanation or insight to offer here. I’m just puzzled.

On the other hand with people we know we relate to people as heads. To their heads as if they were just brains. To their brains as if we were only interested in their consciousness, that ethereal ghost in the machine. The actual mechano pieces are uninteresting to us until they malfunction. Why do we work like that? Do we work like that or it just civilised to work like that?

And don’t you think its interesting that we do?

I confess to being confused. If you’ve ever perchance stumbled on to the beating geek epicenter of the Internet vanguard, the tech blog dubbed you will have run into a variety of jokes and references to the actress Natalie Portman as a sex symbol. Now I appreciate that the audience I refer to is not the most discerning outside of technical specifications but I’m beyond perplexed how this childish looking girl approximates anything like a sex symbol. I just don’t see it.

I can certainly understand that part of her cachet is the association with that true Nerd institution, the Jedi Knight and the Star Wars movies, in her almost infamous role of Padme Amidala, the raison’d’etre of Darth Vader’s misanthropy, she might have in a certain way captivated this audience. It seems odd though that the role in a movie, in a role that has absolutely nothing to do in terms of sex appeal and that doesn’t even use sex appeal as a calling card to secure its audience that she would gather this kind of momentum.

If anything Natalie Portman’s problem as a an actress is that she is entirely the opposite, having never been able to shed the child like image that she acquired in Leon and that her physical appearance actually seems to encourage. She instead is actually guilty of trying too hard to look and be mature, evidenced in movies like Closer where she deliberately tried to undo her child star stereotype by pushing the boundaries of taste in the rash connection that raciness equated to adulthood. A legion of 15 year old teenagers I’m sure would have been able to disabuse her of that notion. She seems to be doing risque because risque is expected, instead of the sort of conviction that defines maturity.

On the other hand you have the Queen of Reinvention, a person who has invented herself and her image so many times that she is the cliche of the reinvented stereotype. The person who can take their old image, discern where parts of it are either dated or common and the excise those parts and renew her image to critical and commercial success on an unprecedented and sustained scale. I of course am talking about Madonna. A constant theme of any new album release by Madonna is here new and ship shape image; people almost don’t even have time to talk about the music because they are so caught up in the fantasy of her resurrection.

It is this ability and distinction between Madonna style auto genesis, recreating her self image herself on a regular basis, and Portman style stagnation the self image that is my focus. It is my focus because I’m concerned with the art of the possible, and it seems seductively true that Madonna defines the art of the possible. It is possible actually to completely reinvent your image to the outer world. You can find that niche, that image to position yourself as a brand in the same sense that Nike positions trainers and Coca Cola positions soft drinks. Markets need a Gatorade, Nescafe and a Coke, because different people are looking for different things, and in the same way they are looking for different people depending on what they are looking.

The interesting thing is that very few people think of how they’re positioning themselves when they are dealing with the wider world. They don’t think in terms of generating the interest by being particularly unique or outstanding. No effort is made to place themselves in the social market in the same sense that they would accept as common sense that a product had to be to sell to people. People after all are simple creatures, they are attracted to defining by pithy sentence. They want to pigeon hole people to make them easy to understand. Gary is the basketball guy, James is the guitar person and Mohammed is the Muslim nutter. There of course is no necessary connection to reality, but reality and people are barely on the same planet most of the time so who can blame the mind for that.

What we need to do is actually take ownership of this positioning, to be self-creating in defining where people pigeon hole us so that we can gain the maximal benefit from that process, instead of waiting for chance and circumstance, and whats worse the deliberate action of other people to place us in what they consider our niche to be, which will be whatever convenient space they have left over in their mental filing space, or whatever odd attribute they decide to latch on to first. Hardly a result to be desired.

Inspired by the comments and suggestions of some people, who comprise the most effective people that I know off, I’ve recently adopted a little efficiency gimmick that has made for an interesting change.

The rule simply stated is: Anything that requires less then five minutes of your time to do should be done instantly. This means that a lot of small stuff is done straight away. And you’ll be suprised how many tasks can be done in just five humble minutes.

It actually increases substantially your efficiency, especially in relation to other people. An email can often be returned in a few mintues, as can a phone call, an sms or other small gestures. Things that are in the way are put away, small things are done that would otherwise get left to procrastination and delayed indefinately by the desire to keep working, in whatever manner and however unproductive, on the big project that is supposedly the focus of the hour. A smaller yet significant side effect is that you get a productivity boost by actually doing things that are pending. You don’t let yourself off by letting the small stuff slide.

Now i’m not saying that there are not certain times that you need to lock down and do away with all distractions as you go towards doing what is necessary, but that at the same time this is not the same as thinking you are being productive when you’re not and disguising procrastination as proactivity. A hundred small things when added together can often be the equivelent of many big things, and these hundred small things is what acts as the finishing touches to any productive effort.

The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) recently published one of its most bite sized bits of propaganda for those who wish to organize their forays into the ivory towers of academia. The annual ranking of universities proposes to authoritatively distinguish between the competing thrusts of universities to be the premier academic institution in the world.

Now my interest is not with the top of the table, for its not likely that I’m to ever wonder down such prestigious hallways, but I have the almost mocking joy of sitting in the lecture theaters of the 33rd best university in the world, the University of Hong Kong and scrolling down to see my undergraduate experience at Kings College London assessed as being of lesser worth then the paper conferred by the Post-Colonial brick and mortar of HKU.

The incredibility knows no bounds.

To assert that HKU is better then KCL, you have to either be deluded to the highest degree or have no experience of those institutions. Certainly in the context of the respective Faculties of Law the battle is so lopsidedly in favour of The Strand that Bonham Road doesn’t stand a chance.

An institution is defined by people, and the most important people in any educational institution are the teachers. The craftsman is always more important then the material, and the same is true when you are molding people as when the material is gold and gems. KCL had some duds and deadweights, Emma Ford was prominently noted as one, but on the whole there were few teachers who were less informed, able and better prepared then their students.

The teachers in HKU, as controversial as the position may sound, are divided by ethnicity. The teachers of Caucasian origin are substantially more lucid, organized, determined, informed and responsive then their native counterparts. Imagine my horror that having realized this fact, to then learn that HKU is determined to pursue a course of nativisation, to promote as far as it finds it tenable to promote those of yellower skin faster and higher then perhaps they can merit, to cultivate and develop committed domestic talent. Unfortunately it means you have substandard teachers in the meantime that does not suggest any true possibility of training a coming generation that will be any more then they are.

Teachers need support, and this is one area where the results are mixed. At KCL the staff in the office could be frustrating beyond belief when you had to deal with them on any issue but generally the teachers themselves were supremely organized. Material was planned months in advance and you would know the precise amount of work that you would need to do for every week of the year usually by the close of the first week of term if you were so inclined to work it out. At HKU on the other hand information is dripped out on a week by week basis. Lecture handouts appear slowly, tutorial handouts appear on a random basis and the reading lists when they are distributed seem to bare faint resemblance to what is actually covered in the lecture. When the reading and the lecture do align, it is usually to confirm how futile actually doing the reading is. The teacher fully plans to repeat every word in the reading in the lecture, usually because they are right to estimate that none or very few of the students have done their homework.

Their Students
The students at HKU are also of a weird type. There is an impressive mix of international students on exchange programs who are usually very well developed and rounded individuals who are knowledgeable and practical as well as involved in class. There are also a high amount of local professionals who could contribute but there key limitation seems to be time with their work commitments taking the most out of them.

The proper full time local students are utterly disappointing. Their greatest flaw to my eyes is their insular attitude towards knowledge and a shocking timidity towards venturing information. They do not share any of the knowledge that they have and this makes it strikingly unprofitable for the rest of us who do feel inclined to contribute. It’s a mentality that I don’t think can be changed, being root and branch integrated into the Hong Kong educational mentality but teachers also fail to break their students out of this mentality, which I feel that Kings teachers were exceptionally aware of and the good ones strove consciously to create class participation and were willing to pick on people to force involvement in the class. HKU teachers seem to be scared of class participation. And sometimes they should be, cause their students can expose their lack of knowledge. I know for a fact that one of my teachers has been wrong on multiple occassions.o:p>

The numbers given to the THES are lying and I think anyone who has ever experienced the difference between HKU and a proper high quality educational institution will be well aware of this inferiority in their educational ability. The suggestion that they can actually compete at the world class level is sadly mistaken, and it will take a solid root and branch reform of mentality, both of their students and their staff to actually create a teaching environment capable of producing strong productive members of society that will have the depth that is needed,