gambitch - now available in blue
Our constant efforts to reinvent ourselves reveal how much we fear our own images.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

I got into a substantial but unfortunately short discussion - well I could have talked quite a bit more but circumstances didn't allow it - on the vague and general topic of the difficulties faced by people like me who enter into a different aspect of "the profession". And believe me, there is quite a host of them. Acknowledging the fact that many of these problems are a natural consequence of environment and upbringing, it nevertheless means that we live in a society where thoughts are never challenged, even if it is only for the purpose of finding out why the thoughts are correct to begin with.

The philosophical side of science tells us that a statement is scientifically good when it is falsifiable, and the strength of science lies additionally in the notion of testability. When a statement is falsifiable and testable, it makes it possible to learn exactly why any given statement is correct. The problem is that most of society does not embrace the scientific method in the way we live our daily lives. Instead most of the things we believe and accept are believed and accepted on the basis of subconscious blind faith. This is the way human beings work, of course, because it would be rather inefficient to question even a substantial minority of things that we may have the slightest doubt about. In a way that is just as well, because it can be rather painful questioning just too many things under the sun. But in this business, that is just not how it works.

Unfortunately, it can be rather difficult to de-program people from the persistent behaviour pattern they have been trained to adopt all their lives. Teachers instruct by pretty much saying, in not so many words, "When we say something is right, it's right. When the textbook says something is right, it's right. No two ways about it, don't question us. It's right because we say so, simple as that." And parents are quick to join in this chorus, teaching their children to keep quiet in class and just nod along. It's more than just going with the flow; it's the belief in the concept of an unshakable authority that is unshakable because, well, it just is. The scariest part is we don't even realize it, which makes it altogether difficult to fix the problem.

In this business, we are often forced to question all sorts of things we normally take subconsciously as a given. Which means that we suddenly have to do a value system check, which for many youths is something they aren't used to doing. The sheer lack of general public discourse brought out into the open on nearly anything is, honestly, very disconcerting. This part of the world, unlike America or western Europe where there is a deep tradition of public discourse and semi-amicable agreement to disagree, is just content to have everything swept under the carpet. One just hopes that the garbage disposal system that hides in the floor beneath - typically a miniature black hole that somehow doesn't suck the carpet away - never breaks down. The consequence is, we're generally not encouraged to think. Holding up the delightful velvet veil that is distinctively 'Asian' harmony is a social system that discourages thinking aloud and frowns upon public discourse. It's not even clamped down upon or banned by some state mechanism in a brutish manner; people are simply subconsciously cajoled into not even thinking of doing it.

I'm not suggesting for one second that harmony is bad in itself; in fact if anything I love the harmony we have here in these parts. Although, I am sure, I would equally love a harmony that is the product of actual social understanding, where after all the open discourse we have, we can still sit down and have a coffee together enjoying one another's company. No, if there really is a problem somewhere, it's the fact that this harmony is a product of systematic non-information and quiet discouragement of any attempt to challenge anything. We get little to no practice when it comes to asking the question "why". The natural result is that we never get to understand for ourselves.

It's a little like the act of climbing a tree. Protective parents never let their kids climb trees because they could fall, the tree could break into three, or for any number of other reasons. So kids grow up believing that tree-climbing is wrong, and maybe they'll stop other people from climbing trees as well. But there's nothing particularly wrong with tree-climbing, unless you're trying to steal a coconut from a tree on private property. But that's another problem altogether - there is nothing wrong with tree-climbing per se! Okay, so I can't climb trees, but that's my problem because I don't have the skills or the practice. That doesn't necessarily mean I believe tree-climbing is wrong, simply because there is no correlation between the two.

But I digress.

All this is by way of saying that we live in a society where we don't ask ourselves hard questions, because it never occurs to us to do it. So we get situations where, in the space of an hour or so, we have to think of decent and sensible explanations for doing something that we've never really put any amount of thought about. For example, the information we choose to print or not print on our identity cards. ID cards are so natural for us in this part of the world, to the point we've never really questioned why we have it, or the significance of the information that is presented on the card. Yet there is genuine public discourse in America for example on whether the country should issue ID cards at all, and at least a substantial group of pro-privacy advocates are against the idea. To us, this is not an issue - the state issues them, we take them, nice and simple. We lose them, we pay a hundred bucks or so to make a new one. If we lose them and don't replace them, and if one night we decide to sleep on a park bench for the fun of it, good luck if a police constable on patrol passes by and asks us to show our ID cards.

Because things like ID cards are such a natural-seeming part of our lives, it never crosses our minds to ask why we have them rather than don't in the first place, and so the importance of the ID card system manages to totally elude us. Suddenly, in the space of an hour or less, that has to change. Which is fine if people are mentally ready for change to hit us and have the guts to deal with it. But many a time we are faced with youths who want - no, need the comfort of the security blanket, who seek the safety of having things on hand to call upon as reinforcements. We have a culture that is averse to being in unfamiliar situations, so averse in fact to border on phobia. We dare not sail our ship out into uncharted waters (the name of an old computer game I really liked, incidentally) relying on our wits and our good intuition, when we've been brought up all our lives in a way that makes us never think to believe that we have either.

So now suddenly I am thrust into a situation where my own instinctive approach would be to bank on my wits and my intuition, uncovered and honed by my years of practice in "the profession". But the "we'll see what comes and then we take care of it" approach cannot apply when it is antithetical, anathematic even, to a group of people long fed on the diet of advance preparation and elaborate pre-planning, where all the thoughts are thoroughly pre-fabricated before the actual event. Because they can't play by ear, they have to pray really hard that everything else goes exactly according to plan. They hedge their bets on that, and sometimes it pays off. Sometimes, however, it doesn't, and barring a miraculous moment of inspiration, they'll just collapse without much of a resistance. All because no one has taught them the importance of responding to circumstances.

Then again, that's why I'm in this business in the first place. If nobody else is willing to show how it's done, then it might well have to be me.

Oh, and I'm told Sheffield United held Arsenal to a 1-1 draw. Thanks Andy.

gambitch [ 10:26 PM]

Friday, February 18, 2005

How tough are these people? We'll find out soon enough.

Nothing in "the profession", absolutely nothing, is more joyful than meeting the best in the business and figuring out how much you measure up to them. Except, perhaps, meeting people who are touted to be the best in the business, and then indulging in determining exactly where the chink in their armour is. How good it must feel for the man whose arrow struck Achilles' heel at the moment it did. To realize that the seemingly invincible is ultimately very vulnerable, and to be the one who strikes the crippling blow that actualizes the vulnerability - that feels very good, indeed.

Some will argue that it feels better to be like Chelsea steamrolling everyone else in the Premiership. Nothing like getting a simple and straightforward draw where winning is a given and everything is just a matter of formality. Banish the thought, I say, for routine and easy wins against nobodies are the type of boring thing we didn't live for. We live for the big moments, and the small moments, while providing their moments of peace, are ultimately the background and not the counterpoint for these big, special moments.

Besides, at the end of the day it's less than a thousand in change and two lines in your CV. In some ways, no big deal.

It thrills me to death, and then some, when I pull a performance that brings a smile to my own face and prove to myself that I can still do this stuff. I'm not exactly known for having the deftest of touches in this business, but I do make up for it with an abundance of background thinking and strategizing. I would not exactly consider myself a juggernaut, but I explore my options with a passion and a resoluteness that is incredible. And that is something I want to inspire everyone to match, simply because, no matter what context you may be in, this is something that you'll find very useful indeed wherever you go.

How tough are these people? We'll find out soon enough.

Sometimes we get caught up in the highest levels of thought and we gasp for air, much like those who dare to climb Everest without an oxygen supply gasp for air. It is in those times that we ought to remember to go back to basics. Starting all over again from fundamentals, breaking them down, and putting them back together again. The sheer amount of things learnt from the exercise will amaze you. Sometimes, when we do too much trying to solve fifth-order differential equations, we get thrown off by someone innocuously asking "Daddy, what's one plus two?" or something similar. (No, I don't have a kid in my house.)

At times like those, it's always a good idea to just go back to our roots for a second and relax a little. And then we'll realize to our shock - and sometimes total horror - how we manage to mess up something so obvious we thought we'd never mess up. But it has happened before, in history. Xerxes got arrogant with his big ships and forgot that impressiveness counts for nothing when negotiating shallower and narrower straits. They aren't going to open any wider for his bigger ships. Bigger is not always better. It's an obvious lesson, but it's one we can forget all too easily, like countless other obvious lessons that different people forget at different times.

How tough are these people? We'll find out soon enough.

The past week has seen mistakes aplenty, but that goes with the territory. What is more important is learning the art of pouncing on the mistakes others make, while avoiding committing your own. To exploit the mistakes of the enemy you first have to be able to identify the mistakes in the first place. And that means snapping out of the "oh no they've screwed up and now this thing will turn messy" mentality, and instead adopting the "ah excellent they've screwed up and we will make them pay dearly" mentality. Very much like how sharks go after people with the smallest bleeding open wound, we too must always learn to be sharp-nosed enough to cash in on the smallest opportunity.

While visiting an online message board, I came across this discussion regarding the famous Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima between Japanese feudal lords Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. Mentioned somewhere in the discussion was the supposed fact that Uesugi detected that an assault by the Takeda army was imminent based on the amount of smoke emerging from the enemy camp. I say 'supposed' because whether this actually happened was disputable. However, for the uninitiated in military theory, the chain of reasoning is straightforward once stated.

Armies of people need to eat, and in the old days they usually cooked their food over a fire, generating a distinctive type of smoke which can't be confused with, say, a forest fire. The amount of smoke generated is, obviously enough, correlated with the amount of food that is to be cooked, which in turn is linked to the number of mouths the cooked portion of the time was intended to feed. More smoke means more people to feed, less smoke means fewer people. Thus, if Uesugi spotted less smoke than usual, then logically it follows that a significant section of the Takeda army were not encamped, which of course leaves the question of where they went. Uesugi filled in the blanks, correctly, and foiled an assault by the Takeda army.

All I wanted to point out with this example was how Uesugi Kenshin's sharp observance and powers of reasoning came in useful in a military operation, which, as Sun Tzu reminds us, is a matter of life and death. Yet a battle can be simplified to a contest of wits and minds of the military commanders as well. Of course, being observant is one (though not the only) necessary attribute that goes into making a top-notch military commander. You can't lead an army well if you can't, by your powers of observation and deduction, determine when would be the best time to strike. But it is not only in the army where the power of observation is invaluable.

In a recent interview, Ruud van Nistelrooy praised fellow striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for having one thing the Dutch goal machine doesn't have - an incredible amount of patience when it comes to studying the opposition from the bench. "I think it's really hard what Ole does," he said, "the way he studies the game. I look in the books at the statistics of all the players and Ole's record is amazing. He's made so many sub appearances, yet scored so many goals - I don't think I'm made for that." Not that he needs to be, given he's a natural starter when fit. But Ruud makes a great point about Ole's ability to watch opponents and single out where their problem areas are and decide how to exploit them. The same must go for us - we need to learn the skill of working our opponents out while the game is going on, and plan out from there the appropriate course of action.

That sometimes means having the composure and ability to react positively when placed in the most unexpected of circumstances. Surprise offers a totally different type of adversity to simple difficulty itself. With difficult opponents we know they're difficult, and the fact that we know about them gives us some innate comfort, however strange. But surprise is the one that really catches people out, and that is where the wheat is sorted out from the chaff. Having the wits about us to calm down and return to basics is the key first step to clawing back into contention on an even keel. Once that hard first step is taken properly, everything else kicks in.

How tough are these people? We'll find out soon enough.

Things went dreadfully wrong for some people this week. So dreadfully wrong, in fact, their nerves showed completely and everything just collapsed from there. It is most fortuitous that this happened in a context where it just about matters the least, beyond making a minor embarrassment of themselves in front of people they want to impress for nothing more complicated than the reason that, well, they just do. Nevertheless, it is something they would much rather wish hadn't happened at all. No doubt there will be all sorts of "how could we allow this to happen to us" stuff for a few days to come, and people will vow to fix it (and then perhaps conveniently forget, but that's another story).

But people must also vow to fix something else, and that something else is the composure - or lack thereof - when you realize that things are not going well and you've committed the biggest boo-boo in your life. The show isn't over even after you're done, and there'll be sharp-eyed people out there who pay attention to your demeanour right up to the moment you step back into the proverbial dressing-room tunnel. Or the dugout, for that matter. Whatever it is, don't let your feelings show.

Several people have jokingly said that, at a piano solo, the pianist can make a mistake and nobody will notice as long as he or she stays poker-faced and gives nothing away. Just play on and nobody will realize the slip. But if the pianist gives a sheepish smile of embarrassment, then the whole world knows that a mistake was made seconds ago. Sometimes they'll wince or shake their heads, but that can just be brushed off as dissatisfaction with themselves - musicians are such perfectionists when it comes to their own performance. But a smile that says 'oops' is beyond all attempts at explaining it away. It's beyond redemption, simple as that.

But that's musicians. For those of us in this business, even a shake of the head is dangerous. It's an indicator of lack of confidence, a clear sign that you didn't do something right and you sure knew that. And regardless whether that is actually true, it's not something that inspires confidence and credibility. Quite simply, this must stop.

There are lots of little things to fix, sure, but as usual there's too little time to fix them all. All that can be done is to try to the level best. After that, it's a matter of seeing how you measure up.

How tough are these people? We'll find out soon enough.

gambitch [ 6:28 AM]

Monday, February 14, 2005

Two goals in the second half, and United wins the Manchester derby.

I should have watched this one, but for a combination of reasons, I didn't. No matter, next week's cup tie could prove equally interesting, if not more so.

Can Chelsea be caught? Sure they can. The difficulty of their 1-0 win yesterday against Everton proves that they are breakable now that Robben isn't around. A Champions' League exit against Barcelona might just set the wheels into motion. After all, Arsenal's hopes of a treble were wrecked in our hands last season in the FA Cup semi, and then Chelsea took them out of the Champions' League the very next game.

If the will is strong, who knows what will happen?

gambitch [ 3:11 AM]


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