Monday, January 30, 2006

Must... optimize... life!

Nitpickiness increasing over time in the name of productivity isn't necessarily good, but here's a first pass of some of the things that being short on time has taught me.

How to schedule and run meetings
  1. Ask yourself if you really need a meeting.
  2. No, seriously. People-time is valuable; will you get much more out of sitting together in person as opposed to emailing back and forth?
  3. Decide who really needs to come and who would be nice to have but not entirely vital; invite accordingly.
  4. When sending out a meeting request or invitation, don't say things like "we should get together sometime." Propose a time and location and set an expire date for RSVPs. Even if nobody likes your time, at least they'll be rejecting something concrete; if people like it, you have a date (instead of a bunch of people agreeing to set one). The same "be concrete" principle applies to the actual meeting as well.
  5. Send a (concise) agenda. Make it clear what the group is coming together to do, what the members should have done beforehand (pointers to how they can do it are especially helpful) and what you will accomplish by the time you leave.
  6. Lay ground rules at the beginning; state your purpose, insert discussion rules if needed, and then go.
  7. Be aware of tangents. Be aware of time. Make sure you accomplish your original purpose first; if you find yourself veering off, either agree to revise your original purpose to fit this or make a note and shelve the topic for another discussion.
  8. End as soon as you do not need everyone in the discussion; splitting into subgroups is ok, working on individual tasks is ok, but make it clear that they don't have to be sitting around the table drumming their fingers any longer.
  9. End on time or earlier. Everyone should walk out of the room with something to do.
  10. Take 15-30 minutes immediately after the meeting to send out minutes (concise!) and action items.
  11. Know when to break these rules.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The well-balanced geek

A simultaneously disturbing and heartwarming trend: I'm becoming less nerdy over time.

"Less nerdy" comes with a disclaimer. Random academic snippets hop into my speech far more often; I connect more disciplines, look at desks and food and crowd behavior and think compressive loads, organic chemistry, and fluid dynamics where I wouldn't before. I laugh at more math jokes. It sounds like I've gotten worse. But I've actually gotten better.

I don't like locking myself up in a room with textbooks and pencilling out abstract equations for hours any more. It's still fun, but it's not - connected. Not real. Abstract intellectualism isn't what I do any more; it's a toy, not my life. (I still like it, but it's not my life.)

The world, or whatever subset of it I happen to be in, is my life. Things I thought I've never get to, things like business negotiations, how to navigate delicate political situations, how to actually touch the minds of other people and change things; this is what I think about more often than not. My happy physics textbooks and linguistics books and my TI-89 are tools for that cause, used like painting, speechmaking, running and modern European history are tools. They're tools for tinkering with and hopefully improving the world, not just studying it.

Olin, you've turned me into a renaissance geek.
Thank you for giving me a life.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

A little experiment with wording

I'm curious to see what the responses to this will be; I'll explain why I'm doing this later.

The survey

Directions: Pick the response that sounds most similar to what you'd say.

Part A. Factual information (Statements that are either true or untrue, like "The current US president is George Bush.")

1. How do you say things you're sure are facts?
a) I think... [fact], but I could be wrong.
b) [fact]
c) I'm positive that... [fact]
e) Other (please explain)

2. How do you say things you're pretty sure - but not absolutely positive - are facts?
a) I think... [fact], but I could be wrong.
b) [fact]
c) I'm positive that... [fact]
d) Other (please explain)

3. How do you say things you believe are are the case, but only have an educated guess as to?
a) I think... [fact], but I could be wrong.
b) [fact]
c) I'm positive that... [fact]
d) Other (please explain)

4. How do you say things you think are the case, but are basing this off a fairly wild guess?
a) I think... [fact], but I could be wrong.
b) [fact]
c) I'm positive that... [fact]
d) Other (please explain)

Part B. Opinions and beliefs (Statements that are not necessarily true or untrue, like "The current US president is smart.")

5. When stating an unshakable opinion or belief of yours, how do you express it?
a) I believe... [opinion], but I could be wrong.
b) [opinion]
c) [opinion], and I stand firm on this.
d) Other (please explain)

6. When stating a strong opinion or belief of yours that could be changed with good counterevidence, how do you express it?
a) I believe... [opinion], but I could be wrong.
b) [opinion]
c) [opinion], and I stand firm on this.
d) Other (please explain)

7. When stating an opinion or belief of yours that could be changed with counterevidence, how do you express it?
a) I believe... [opinion], but I could be wrong.
b) [opinion]
c) [opinion], and I stand firm on this.
d) Other (please explain)

8. When you're not sure what your opinion or belief on a matter is but feel you're expected to have one, how do you express it?
a) I believe... [opinion], but I could be wrong.
b) [opinion]
c) [opinion], and I stand firm on this.
d) Other (please explain)

Part C: Demographics

9. I am...
a) a student
b) working
c) retired
d) other (please explain)

10. I am...
a) male
b) female
c) other

11. My profession/field of study is usually seen as...
a) male
b) female
c) other (please explain)

12. I have been in a significant management or leadership role.
a) yes
b) no

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Jet lag and the revelations of solitary

So much for being used to travel. It's Sunday morning and I haven't slept during non-daylight hours since I got back. I'm trying to shift myself, and the current plan has me going to sleep soon after I write this post, but it's frustrating not to be exhausted enough to conk out as soon as my head hits the pillow. With enough sleep debt, I'm not an insomniac.

One nice thing about abstaining from a place or thing is that it eventually shows you what you love and what you just thought you did. Things often fade from your memory with less protest than you thought they would. This is why people go on retreats and solitary quests, why they go off to the woods (because they wish to live deliberately and front only the essential facts of life, as Thoreau would say).

In the Philippines, I kept on thinking about my thick down quilt in the middle of the night. I love thick blankets, even in the middle of summer; it's a comforting snuggle to have on top of you, and I get cold easily. I kept thinking about fresh vegetables, pasta, and hot showers. When I'm at school, I miss my parents more than I'll admit to in most conversations, and appreciate time alone with my brother and his frank commentaries on everything (especially our parents).

I kept thinking about some folks that I don't see often, and went weeks without thinking about others I meet nearly every day. That sounds terrible, like I don't care about them; I do. It's terrifying and wonderful to see how deeply various people have changed the way you think, and how conscious you are of the change. There's a thought I'd like to express in this sentence, but it won't form itself into words.

I feel starved after a time without good conversations, particularly with folks that understand when I geek out, but am fine without excessive amounts of solitary studying, and won't die if I don't take a textbook with me. I need to be free to wander anywhere at any time I please; I want freedom more than I want safety.

If it takes three weeks to remind me of this and more, I wonder what will happen after graduation when I take a whole year or two off to go away and live without my world.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Home again

Hot showers never felt so good. In the Philippines, at least at my grandparents' house, "bath" means "fill the big bucket from the faucet and use the little scoop to pour water over your head."

I have a huge amount of work to catch up on in the next 9 days, but not tonight. Tonight I'm sleeping.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Life in the Philippines 3: I miss vegetables

After two weeks of looking for non-meat food...

Me: Does anyone eat fiber in this country?
Grandma: Oh, we eat lots of fiber! *produces bottle of Metamucil*

In other news, orange-flavored psyllium husk tastes terrible.

My grandmother overheard my plaintive requests for green stuff, so we trundled off to a vegetarian restaurant for dinner. It was an admirable shot, though I think the deep-fried spinach more than counteracted its own healthiness. Mom's promised that the first restaurant we hit at home will be Sweet Tomatoes, an all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar. And to think she used to have to plea bargain me into eating greens.

I learned Tai Chi for the first time. I now have a shaky grasp of the Short Form (Yang 24-step) and want more. It's not just because my grandfather (at the end of the post) did it. I like it. It feels... right. It fits.

Pue-ee (my mother's 8th sister Joyce), her husband, and I went to the Gawad Kalinga (GK) headquarters and met Tony Meloto (GK's founder) and his daughter and son-in-law, and a zillion other people. The place just exudes passion and love, and so do the people. I'm still in awe and processing my copious interview notes into an article (coming soon), but I will say that if you want to see real hope, go talk to any GK person and you'll come away glowing. In the afternoon Mom and I went to Buayang Bato, the GK town we'd visited previously, and did some painting. I want to go back. I need to learn Tagalog.

There are too many pointy fences and security checkpoints here for my taste; feels like a high-security prison. Not that the pointy fences are unjustified. People get robbed and shot and kidnapped and killed here, and all four have happened to our family before. We went to see the Filipino Heroes memorial where my grand-uncle Quintin Yuyitung is listed. He and his brother (who is still living) were kidnapped and jailed for running the Chinese Commercial News(paper) during the Marcos administration. Due to outrage from the international press, they were eventually freed and deported. They were luckier than my great-grandfather, the father of my mother's mother; he was shot for refusing to print Japanese propaganda in the same paper. There's a national memorial to him also, but it's at the fort where he was imprisoned instead. My family has... a history in journalism. I think I'm the first generation that hasn't been jailed for it yet.

On a lighter note, street signs here include the following.

Sidewalks are for Pedestrians
Jam Jam Restaurant (Me: "Oh, they sell preserves!" Mom: "No, that's the guy's name.")Immaculate Conception Academy - Sponsored by Hapee Toothpaste
It is Forbidden to Urinate on this Wall

Then there was the laundry hanging from fences. This wouldn't be so unusual if the fences hadn't been the ornamental ones surrounding the national monuments at the middle of downtown intersections. I wonder if the squatters there are ever embarrassed that their boxers are waving around in front of several thousand people. A few small children were running around stark naked on the sidewalk as their laundry dried, so I guess they weren't too concerned.

We fly back in the morning. I've got a lot of catching up to do.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Life in the Philippines 2: faith, food, and GK

This country is ridiculously Catholic. The shopping malls have chapels and celebrate Mass every day so the shopping of the faithful need not be interrupted. In addition to the ever-present Jesus tiles, there are statues of Mary. Everywhere. Big Mother is watching you, children.

I'm developing a newfound appreciation for drinkable tap water and clean toilets. The first doesn't exist here, the second is rare. I'm also missing vegetables, since most stuff here is rice + meat + meat + meat + rice + bread. Vegetables don't keep well in the Philippines, so nobody eats them (they're sad and wilted and... sort of icky-looking; I saw the saddest head of lettuce and the most forlorn looking batch of carrots on the kitchen table this afternoon).

In happier news, we saw the Gawad Kalinga town for the first time today, and it is beautiful. They've transformed this former slum into a great, friendly, self-sustaining, becoming-educated village in a little over a year, and the people with it. The families there are very poor - a house for a whole family (families are large; Manila is Catholic, remember?) is not much larger than a suite single in our dorm. It's smaller than a double. The bathroom's a little larger than our closets. It's an interesting architectural challenge how to make a good living space in that small of an area, and they're doing a pretty good job with mostly concrete blocks.

They acquire a tract of land and go in talking to families asking if they want their homes rebuilt. If the answer's yes, they demolish the old places and provide materials and training; the community pitches in with sweat equity. They build their houses, and they own their houses and take pride in them, sometimes to extreme degrees; one teenager slept on the roof of his under-construction house during windy weather because he was afraid it would fly off before construction was complete and it was nailed down. The people build a school, a clinic, a basketball court, a town center... the villagers to govern themselves, and crime rates plummet, employment soars, people don't drink on the streets, and little kids can actually go out and play. The people are so friendly. The kids would come up and mano po (a sign of blessing and respect, touching the back of your hand to their forehead) in greeting, and when we were caught in a downpour, the nearest homeowner opened her door and beckoned us inside.

It costs about $1kUS for materials to build a house, and they can always use hands to build. Or teach the kids, or first aid, or whatever suits you. Building environmentally-friendly communities from scratch in developing nations, with education, technology, entrepreneurship (they help those who want to start small businesses), and a fascinatingly close-knit community feel. Hm. Sounds like a certain engineering college I know.

Would anybody be interested in getting involved? I'm still trying to figure out how. On a grandiose scale, we could put together an Olin build trip out to the Philippines and raise up a house, start to finish, for a family. I think it would be one of those life-changing experiences; the people are just a joy to be around. Email me if you're interested, or post here.