Monday, July 30, 2007

Moving on, again

Today, I talked with a successful man. A professor at a good university, well recognized researcher, and a respected and appreciated academic adviser, a true rarity. He is thinking about moving on. The flare for teaching is not quite there. The research funding is ever more difficult to get. Administrative functions in academic environment are a recipe for depression.

I feel much less bad for thinking about moving on myself. Despite having it pretty good, too. Is this logical?

Pure and Wit

Two movies captured me late at night last Saturday: Pure, and Wit.

Pure is about an innocent ten year old boy taking on all sorts of responsibilities, desperately trying to help his mother overcome heroin addiction. It ends on a good note, but the movie does not shy away from showing the raw, really raw and rough way there. The moral - no matter how hard you want to help, sometimes people need to find the strength to help themselves. Another moral - do not do drugs.

Wit is a meditation about dying. Emma Thompson is the movie. She plays an ultra tough and strict university professor diagnosed with advanced cancer, going through experimental treatment, dying at the end. The movie is kind of witty about the whole situation, and, just like Pure, it does not sugar coat the ordeal Thompson's character goes through, and how difficult the process of dying is. One of major regrets of Thompson's character is that she was too uncompromising, too inflexible, not humane enough.

I recommend both movies. This is not the sugary Hollywood stuff though; you may experience some impact.

Both movies made me wonder why it is that we tend to wait until we are in a very difficult situation, or at advanced age, approaching our own demise, before we start appreciating the need to be more gentle, helpful to others, being altruistic. Frankly, I don't know what to say here but to wonder whether there seems to be the time for everything - first you push to be successful, powerful, influential, wealthy, then you turn around and become helpful. Sounds so banal.

Path of least resistance

Lots has happened, at least it feels that way. It's all probably akin adding a drop to a large bucket of water.

A friend and co-worker decided to move out of SF Bay area to live closer to his family and, mostly, to live in a gorgeous house they can afford to buy there as opposed to a tiny house they
are renting here. I was and still am genuinely happy for him. He was hoping to continue working with us remotely, was told that would not be possible, bought a house anyway, and was told again that his job was here. I have mixed feelings here - I actually agree that it would be close to impossible for him to be productive remotely, and such arrangements have not worked out on in the past, with very few miraculous exceptions. Yet, it would be nice if he was given an opportunity.

I guess the land of opportunities may not be quite as seen on TV. Why would he not be given an opportunity? Well, there is a cost to every opportunity. There is obvious financial cost of having him employed and there is additional cost of a remote person. I don't believe that in our specific case, anything would be saved on not having a office for him. There are other costs, but the one I want to emphasize is the cost of inconvenience of having to tackle a difficult situation. That is the cost that almost every manager wants to avoid. Almost at any cost.

Here is what could have happened: My friend attempts to work remotely and the arrangement proves to be unsuccessful. Even worse, the arrangement may be only marginally successful. And it needs to be brought to an end. Not an easy thing to do. One, this is a situation where a manager must first make a decision that something is not working out, and then the manager must act on that. Trying to repair such a situation is usually a futile energy draining endeavor that can involve many difficult and unpleasant situations. Second, there are rules to follow, and performance related rules are a pain in the neck. Or elsewhere. And, again, they require an enormous amount of work and, again, many unpleasant situations. So any self-respecting manager will follow basic self-preservation instincts and act when the situation is easy. That is, when the situation can easily be painted as black and white. In my friend's case, his job is here and not there. Period.

I used to have a moral issue with such pragmatic self preservationist approach. It did not meet my moral standards. Today, my moral standards have changed - they used to assume that people take care of each other and play nice. And that when one doesn't play nice, you just deal with that in isolation. I was naive, of course, and have paid dearly for that. One needs to appreciate self-preservation instincts, and one must appreciate the depth of people's desire to be comfortable. And all this healthy appreciation does not mean one should not be nice and act with integrity. I think I used to be way too soft. Not a pleasant thing to admit.

In my friend's case, he did not play nice. He tried to push the issue and had his bluff called. End of story. So I can feel for him and root for him as a friend, yet I have to respect and appreciate the decision.

Somehow, this post reads almost childish to me. I was surprised with my disappointment that my friend would not to get to try working remotely. I am also disappointed he would not be around - he is a very good researcher and has been very helpful in the past. Saying that we will miss him is not just a standard empty phrase here. Yet I somehow feel the right move was made.

I wish him well. And he'll quickly find a place that will appreciate his considerable skills and nice personality.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A good day

Yesterday was a good day. Most definitely. It started with some don-yu's, a tai chi exercise that some mistake for sit-ups. At work there was lots of hoopla around the chip we are trying to make - project managing anything in a research environment makes cat herding look benign. Listening to one of our interns whine that firewalls are not set up exactly according to his needs was the low point of the day. I did manage to find some time for my own research, so I wrote a few pages of a memo discussing why parallel programming is hard. Most importantly, I managed to stop myself and went to the gym to work out. A bit of running on an elliptical machine and a solid dose of tor-yu's, a tai chi stretch that saved my back when I was competing in squash. Nice veggie soup for supper, a very tai chi set with Jasna. We ended the day early.

The day was not perfect by any stretch of imagination. Yet I felt very good, both physically and mentally. The mind was pliable and fresh, the step was bouncy. No desire for additional entertainment that would make me stay up long. No desire for late night work either. Even the realization that Jasna would have to redo the whole-day worth of her work was not derailing.

I like a good day and I'll take it any day. In fact, I want a good day to be the norm and I am not that sure it has been. So, what is the recipe? One part of rest and one part of exercise. A pinch of detachment and a spoon of engagement? Two cups of sunshine?

How much is external and how much is internal?

I guess I am asking a well digested question with no easy answer. One thing I can say, however: Carpe diem refers to the day. Not the year. Not the minute. It is a day that is the unit of life.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The meaning of train?

I saw Zhou Yu's Train today. It felt very European, moody. Yet Chinese. They can be moody, too. Not sure what to think of it, the movie did not leave me flooded with emotions like some do. Still, it made me contemplate. We run. Figuratively, mostly, of course. We rarely stop. Then we age and start to contemplate.

Wes, who turned 80 this year, seems quite changed from 10 or so years ago when we first met. What matters now is what affects humanity. Helping others. Caring for each other. I thought for a moment Wes could afford thinking like that, some historians already study his life and contributions. It dawned upon me that all I need is my own permission and I, too, don't have to vanish in the sea of averages. You don't have to do it either.

Back to the movie. I think I like it. Gong Li was her usual spectacular self, there was plenty of beautifully shot scenery. The plot was not of a cookie-cutter variety. The pace was deliciously slow. I really like it when the story takes its time. Well, there are limits. Scent of the Green Papaya was too slow for my temper.

So what is it that we yearn for? Like trains, do we fleet through tunnels, looking for that light, just to enter another tunnel? Do we wear out and take comfort in simplicity? I hope not.