The Devil's Two Eyes

It is ironic how I have successfully fended off the temptations of watching TV all my life but am now in real danger of succumbing to the attraction of the Internet. 

Come to think of it, these are different media, but do have a lot in common. Both work with a screen. Both provide messages and images. Both involve  sedentary human consumption. Worse of all, both are addictive.

And the Internet is much more powerful than TV. With todays highly sophisticated information and communication technology, the Internet as a medium can do everything that TV is capable of. And more. And better. This is because the users engagement with the Internet is highly interactive.  Whatever the user fancies, whether it is a friend (real or virtual), an answer, a commodity at the other end of the world, or anything we dont want to name, the gratification is almost immediate. And whatever we do on this platform, be it just passive browsing or active chitchatting, as long as it gives us pleasure, the tendency to do it again and again will get stronger and stronger. As Norman Doidge said in his book The Brain that Changes Itself, neurons that fire together wire together. Not only that. The satisfaction bar keeps moving up so that it gets more and more difficult to get the same level of pleasure. One has to plunge more and more deeply into the habit. Internet porn is an excellent example.
Fortunately, awareness is the crucial first step towards solving a problem. I do need to keep my habit of passive browsing in check. Otherwise, I can easily just waste as much time, if not more, on the Internet as I would on TV.
Towards the end of the last century, Chris de Burgh tried to warn us of the habit of watching TV by portraying the box as The Devils Eye in a song of the same name. In the song, the Devil says:

Oh side by side
We will cross that Great Divide
Cos nothings gonna save you now from the Devils Eye

If the television is one of Devils eye, guess what is the other?


Looking at money and time with the same lens

There are many things I like about Gretchen Rubins book The Happiness Project. One is that she reviewed a lot of literature to explain or back up what she said. She included a lot of good quotes in the book. This one, by Gertrude Stein is my favourite: Everyone has to make up their mind if money is money or money isnt money and sooner or later they always do decide that money is money. The peculiar nature of money and how people view it is shrewdly expressed.

I have an idea that we can perhaps say the same about time. Everyone has to make up their mind if time is time or time isnt time and sooner or later they always do decide that time is time. I certainly hope that this blunt attempt of mine in no way blemishes the beauty of the original sentence.


Absurdity in society

Messages from the local media are seldom worth quoting. But I would make an exception of the following (translated) line from a newspaper article a couple of days ago:

"...recently, countless and astounding events of absurdity happen in all manners in society. What is in common is that the common sense, composure and civilised standard of the past have all lost their effects. They have been replaced by distortions, lame excuses, lies and defamation."

Well said, except that there is still one word I would contend with. Has these all just happened "recently"? Or is it the remarkable frequency, intensity, magnitude and shamelessness of the more recent events finally jerking people to their senses?

I cannot remember how long ago it was when I started noticing this subtle but sure sign of degradation, mainly from the advertisements. As said, you seldom find anything from the media you would rave about, but there were, in my childhood and adolescent years, some advertisements that I would find classy or humorous. In the last decade or so, that isn't the case any more. You no longer see any good puns or storylines in, for example, the TV advertisements. "You have to understand that these advertisements are not for us," I remember telling my wife many years ago. "They are for our compatriots." I was referring to the media's targeted audience in the Pearl River Delta, who have access to Hong Kong TV channels.

But it is actually worse than just a lack of wonderful productions. The phenomenon reflects a lack of respect for the audience. These days, producers and script writers either just freely bombard you with visceral sales lines, or create scenes and images which are absolutely contrived or contorted and completely removed from reality. Simply put, the strategies are either bluntly brainwashing or blatantly lying. It is a complete insult of the audience's intellect or, worse still, it was as if they think the audience are complete idiots with no intellect to insult.

Unfortunately, it was not until recently, when such degradation has become more and more obvious at different aspects of our life, when these strategies of bluntly brainwashing and blatantly lying have been widely, openly and shamelessly adopted by politicians, that people begin to feel hurt and to cry foul.
It was rude awakening, for sure. But they should have known better. What else can you expect when you are under the rule of the Communist Party, a gang of criminals who only look to strengthen their administration by fooling and intoxicating the people.

Fittingly, the above-mentioned newspaper article finishes by saying:

"Integration between China and Hong Kong is just around the corner."


"Post every day, that's absolute key"

"Post every day, that's absolutely key."

In her bestselling book The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin recounted her experience of starting a blog. The above was a piece of advice one of her friends gave her.

I know it is a good piece of advice. My blog started to go wrong the day I broke the habit.

For over a year, I was committed to uploading an entry a day. I remember hurrying home late at night so I could blog before the day was done. I remember blogging away on a tatami bed in a Hokkaido minshuku late at night, my wife in a slumber next to me. Then one day I realised that  there was no need to do so, as I could just date back any entry. And that was when I started relaxing, and I delayed my writing and uploading for longer and longer, until I could no longer keep up.

This is, like what I said yesterday, again a matter of discipline. When I started throwing my self-discipline out of the window, everything crumbled.

I would now like to pick up the habit of posting every day again and see how far I can go.

That, as Gretchen Rubins friend told her, and as I found out from my bad experience, is absolute key.


Make your bed (2)

Yesterday, I said that I "basically" make my bed. By that I mean I do that on the days I go to work. I leave my sheets in a heap during weekends or when I am on holiday.

So I cannot boast of fully meeting one of the three criteria for being successful. I do not do it with total commitment.

I have never paid any attention to my bed-making habit until I wrote these two blog entries, but that I start thinking about it, a very interesting question pops up: Why is it that I make my bed in the mornings when I am in a great rush and not in those when I have all the time in the world?

The answer, I believe, lies in one word: discipline. It is true that in the mornings of my working days, I am pressed for time because there are so many things to do - scoop the cat poop, make breakfast and eat it, take a shower, download audio files to my iPhone for listening during the commute to work, etc. But it is precisely for this reason that I have to be highly disciplined in order to complete all these things before going to work and, over the years, I have developed a routine that I follow like clockwork.

The non-working days are, as anyone can imagine, completely different, and I can be as slack and undisciplined as I like.

Yesterday, I said that I can see something in common about the characteristics of bed makers. I think it is discipline. Are disciplined people not more likely to like their job, own a home, exercise regularly and feel rested? Are they not happier and more successful as a result?

In the article I quoted yesterday, the writer concluded by saying that maybe she'll try making her bed as her mum advised.

"Maybe" is not good enough. She should make a stronger commitment.


Make your bed (1)

Some time ago, my wife told me what she learned from a friend as the three criteria for a successful person - making his bed, and having a meal with his family members. She said it half-jokingly, but I could sense some pride in her. She knew that I passed the test.

Yes, I do make my bed. Basically (more about that later).

In an online article called "Make Your Bed, Change Your Life?", the writer Judy Dutton cited the following impressive findings from a survey:

"In a survey of 68,000 people by Hunch.com, 59 percent of people don't make their beds. 27 percent do, while 12 percent pay a housekeeper to make it for them. Here's what disturbed me: 71 percent of bed makers consider themselves happy; while 62 percent of non-bed-makers admit to being unhappy. Bed makers are also more likely to like their jobs, own a home, exercise regularly, and feel well rested, whereas non-bed-makers hate their jobs, rent apartments, avoid the gym, and wake up tired. All in all, bed makers are happier and more successful than their rumple-sheeted peers."

As Judy Dutton pointed out, the findings "show correlation but not causation". So it is not like starting the habit of making your bed tomorrow will make you feel happy, like your job, own a home and all that. I think the findings show that there is something in common about all these factors, and that common characteristic may be a key feature of our well-being. I will say more about that tomorrow.


Will you sponsor me?

My nine-year-old nephew gave me a strange phone call earlier today.

“Are you pleased with my performance in the final examination?” he began.

I learned about his good results a couple of weeks ago. He ranked second in the class and seventh in the form. What was he after, I wondered.

“Of course I am,” I said. “How about you?”

Rather than answering me, he said: “You didn’t go to Taiwan with me last year. Will you sponsor me for my trip this year?” He even named a price. “Please sponsor two to three thousand dollars.” I was taken aback by the request and the way he made it. That was not the nephew I knew.

It did not take long for me to figure out who was behind all this. The innocent kid did not have a clue what he was saying. He was just reciting something the scripted by his mother. This was confirmed by a phone call to my sister later. I did not speak sanctimoniously, of course, but she quickly took the responsibility and was apologetic.

I think what she orchestrated was not a good idea for two reasons. First, the use of reward to reinforce good academic performance not only fosters an instrumental attitude towards, but also kills interest in, a child’s studies. Second, adults should not take advantage of children’s innocence and obedience to satisfy their own ulterior motives.

Obviously, we have different ideas about what is good for children.


What Bosnian grandmothers say

One interesting topic of the conversations with the two Bosnia travel guides mentioned in the blog entries of the last two days was the wisdom their grandmothers passed on to them. It was an interesting coincidence since the topic was self-initiated and unprompted.

The grandmother of the guide based in Sarajevo told him that he will be fine with everything as long as he does not go to extremes.

The grandmother of the Mostar guide told him not to pretend to know something if he does not. Foolish people present themselves as clever and clever people present themselves as foolish, she said.

I am glad that the time-honoured Bosnian wisdom has now gone to the East.


Children of the war (part 2)

The other guide was in Mostar during the war. Mostar was not under siege, but there were heavy street fighting and shelling. Among the greatest damage was the destruction of the Stari Most (Old Bridge in English), which was built by during the Ottoman time in the sixteenth century and which gave the city its name. The guide said that when the bridge was destroyed on 9 November 1993 by the tank fire of the Bosnian Croats, he vowed to himself that the day when the bridge was reconstructed, he would celebrate by jumping down from it. True to his word, he did so when the reconstructed bridge was inaugurated on 23 July 2004. He had also been taking part in the annual summer diving competition until he stopped a couple of years ago.

It has been seventeen years since the war stopped, but both men are deeply dissatisfied with the political situation of the country, regarding the politicians as inept, selfish and corrupt. They are nostalgic about the days in which Bosnia and Herzegovina was part of former Yugoslavia, and have become so disillusioned that one has now become a member of a small independent political party and the other has decided to move to Norway, the native country of his wife.

It seems that towards recovery and reconciliation, there is still a long way to go. 


Children of the war (part 1)

"No other generation of surgeons in the painful wartime history remembers performing surgery in theatres, the walls of which are shaking from bombings during four long, cold and dark years." 
Dr Ismet Gavrankapetanovic, head of Orthopaedics and Trauma at the Clinical Centre of the University of Sarajevo and a Medical faculty professor

"The situation during the Sarajevo siege was very unusual. In warzones, the civilians usually run away, and that is their right. While the fighters stay alone, and we, as reporters, go after them. Here, everybody was stuck together - the fighters, the civilians and us reporters who'd decided to stay. It was a very special situation. In a way, it was our war together." 
Remy Ourdan - of French newspaper Le Monde - who was 22 when he began reporting on the siege of Sarajevo, a city he stayed in for four years and where he returns frequently

While the three bases for our tour of Bosnia and Herzegovina were Sarajevo, Mostar and Trebinje, there were many sites outside these cities that we would like to go to. When I planned how best to travel to these sites, I ruled out taking public transport. Not only is the service from, say, Sarajevo to those sites outside the city not frequent but also one would have to make a trip back to Sarajevo after visiting Site A to take another bus to Site B because there is simply no bus connecting Site A and Site B. Given the infrequent bus service, it is almost always impossible to make two such visits in one day. Renting a car could have been another option, but I was put off by the inadequacy of road signs, many of which are in Cyrillic only. So we went for taking day trips and hiring licensed local guides who also provided transport. This option was not inexpensive, but it allowed us to go to a few places on the same day, and spared us of the worry of landmines, which was a danger when travelling to the remote or unknown countryside.

As it turned out, the guides were invariably young, well-spoken, knowledgeable and helpful. We treated them as friends rather than providers of service, especially the two young men who were with us in Sarajevo and Mostar respectively.  Both of them grew up as children during the war in 1992-1995, so they had remarkable stories to tell about their childhood.

The one who grew up in Sarajevo told us about how even the constant threat of gunfire and grenades could not deter the children from going out during the four-year siege of the city. The civilians had known, with time, where the snipers were positioned, and as long as they stayed clear of the straight line of their gunfire, they would greatly reduce the chance of being shot. But grenades were a totally different matter, and they could land anywhere. Despite the danger, parents were resigned to the fact that their children had to have some activities.

One activity for the children was to run outside after an explosion and race to be the first to grab the tail of the grenade. The greater the tail, the greater the satisfaction. This guide said he had collected some such ‘trophies’ and still keeps them at home.

Another activity during those four years without electricity, water and gas was to collect water for the family. The guide’s family lived on the hill, and about once a week, they had to ride a bicycle to collect water from a nearby collection point – a brewery which had a supply of spring water. The journey to the brewery took about 25 minutes, and the journey back, during which they had to go up the hill with buckets loaded with water, was much tough. Also, the water collection points throughout the city was often shelled, making the trip not only difficult but also dangerous.


A sleepless night

Unlike normal circumstances, I wasn’t returning to consciousness to escape from a bad dream. I guess it was jet lag that woke me up in the middle of the night. My biological clock was still not able to get in sync with the seven hours of time difference.  This was, after all, the second night since coming back from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Nor was I eaten up by worries like in the other sleepless nights. Lying wide awake on the bed, thoughts and memories rushed up like the water in the springs and waterfalls of the country I have just travelled for over a week. I saw again the family of sheepdogs at a mountain house in Umoljani. I heard again the melodious chanting of Islamic prayers from a mosque while sipping Turkish coffee at a roadside café. I relived the scenes of looking at the sun setting on Sarajevo from the balcony of my hostel, listening to the local people talk about how they survived the war and taking that tedious but pleasant trip from Trebinje back to Sarajevo. I felt, gosh, I need to get hold of these flowing inspirations like when I would have a drink of, or bottle, the cool and fresh water from the fountains throughout the country.

I have to write down the experiences.


So pluralistic, and yet so divisive

As I sat at the balcony of the hostel and watched Sarajevo at sunset, I was spellbound by the charm of this amazing city.  Right in front and not far from the hostel, the spiral of a Catholic church towered above the neighbouring red rooftops. Not far behind were the minaret of a mosque and dome of an Orthodox church. As night fell, the lighted minarets of mosques far and near adorned the city like jewels. As if the beauty and serenity were not enough to intoxicate me, some Hungarian ethnic music, probably from a live performance nearby, began to waft through the air, taking me to a world that was almost surreal.

Where on this planet, I wondered, may one possibly find this blend of cultures? It hurts to think what heavy prices the country and, in particular, this city have paid for being at the crossroads of ethnicity, religion and culture. While on this night it looked to be like a picture of pluralism and harmony, the sad and turbulent history of the country shows that this has rarely been the case.