I was right

Refer to my previous entry: Will there be WW3?

Finally, common sense prevails. The US and Iranian leadership chose the right path: immediate de-escalation. Leaders from both sides have given tough-sounding but conciliatory statements. Even Trump sounded magnanimous.

Crisis averted for the time being.

Iranian admitted that the Ukranian flight was shot down by their own missiles, which mistook it for a military aircraft. Sucks for everyone involved, but at least the incident will be resolved through the normal channel, rather than devolving into a casus belli.

The Iranian leadership gave a strong signal with their bombings of American targets in Iraq. It was purposely made to avoid any Iraqi and American casualties, only to give the message that they have the capability to inflict mass casualties and destruction to nearby enemies. Enough to make some Gulf countries shaking in their boots, and stand up in respect whenever Iran is mentioned.

Yesterday, Iran made a statement that the bombings were sufficient retaliation for the earlier American attack towards General Soleymani. PR-wise, the statement was a brilliant move. With one stroke, they managed to assuage their supporters at home who were baying for blood, while putting fear in the hearts of their Middle Eastern rivals, and, at the same time, reconcile with the US. Wins all around.

One thing for sure: Iran is blessed with highly rational leadership, a fact known for many decades to Israeli politicians and intelligence agencies. Watch the 2012 interview with Meir Dagan, the legendary head of Mossad, on the American news show 60 Minutes. Dagan explained that all his calculations in the Middle East were made with the assumption that Iran is led by a “rational regime”, and that attacking Israel (which Benjamin Netanyahu called for at the time) was a really stupid idea.

I am sure the American letter agencies (CIA, NSA, etc.) came to the same conclusion.

The clerical class and hardcore Islamists in Iran seem to have this fanatical obsession with Islamic eschatology. Even us Sunnis are a bit weirded out with how fanatic they seem, but that’s how the Shias roll. But we should not let these appearances of external piety cloud our geopolitical judgment. The Iranian leadership is intelligent and rational, not crazy.

Iran has been waging a silent but highly successful campaign for Middle Eastern supremacy in the past two decades. Foreign affairs pundits used to joke that Dick Cheney was an Iranian agent: the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq benefit none other than Iran.

Iran has never been in direct conflict since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, yet the Iranian circle of influence in the Middle East has grown steadily since 2001: now Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq are part of the Shia crescent. Every destabilizing events in the Middle East: Iraq war, ISIS, Saudi-Yemen war, etc., seem to strengthen Iran. All these without a single drop of blood spilled in direct conflict.

Now that Iran has become quite the contender for the top dog in the Middle East, they are not going to blow all the advantages away in a haphazard attack towards a military superpower, despite the vague allusion by their clerics that Shiite victory and supremacy will bring closer the End of Days and the arrival of the Islamic Messiah. They learnt their lesson from the Iran-Iraq war, where they lost millions of their people in what seemed like a pointless war. No, Iran needs to play smart. Support the proxies, choose the battles wisely, and when the heat is too much, retreat while saving face, as what they did with the US recently.

Iran is playing the long game.

Write long, write daily

I love writing, but I am not good at it.

This blog is the only place where I write.

Writing is hard, even for something which not many people will read.

Putting ideas into words is difficult.

Finding the right words takes time. I believe in an extreme rule of writing: there is such a thing as the correct word for each occasion. A thesaurus may give synonyms of a word, but in my belief, there is a platonically perfect word for every usage. Finding this perfect word is tough. Context is a bitch. To be a good writer, you need a good ear. Great writers have perfect pitch.

Making a piece of writing flow smoothly takes even more time: you have to scan your piece from the beginning, and to register all logical gaps and pieces that do not fit together and clunky constructions. And then, fix them one by one. Grammarly only makes your task slightly easier by catching obvious mistakes; it does not catch tone, flow, semantics, and voice.

I resolve to not suck at writing. Perhaps, one day, to be good at it.

There is only one way for me to do it: write more and read more.

I do much less reading nowadays — too much work and too little free time which I spend not sleeping or watching Netflix.

So I have to write more.

Therefore I will update this blog daily. And every entry will be long-ish. No short updates. I am living life on hard mode. And unlike my previous blog, no memes or jokes or funny pictures that you can find at places like Reddit. Only serious attempts at writing, daily. I don’t do gimmicks like clickbait titles and all the SEO nonsense. This blog is not optimized for anyone. It is what it is, a record of my thought on various topics, with some updates on my personal and professional life. Nothing more.

Why I don’t have a FB page

Today, someone asked me why I don’t have a Facebook page.

I do. In fact, I have more FB pages than most people:

These are the projects and companies in which I play an active role, so I consider their Facebook pages to be mine as well.

Of course, I understand what she was actually asking: why don’t I have a personal Facebook page?

The answer is simple: I value privacy and tranquility in my personal life. I do not miss much by not being on Facebook: anything on Facebook worth reading I will still hear about, either through my friends or my wife. The rest I do not bother.

Keeping things simple

Yesterday, I was in a mall. I wanted to buy a bottle of perfume from a store. This is a chain store with many branches in Malaysia and in other countries.

I normally carry cash around (not much of an e-wallet guy), so I think of any retail transaction like buying a donut*: take item, go to cashier, pay cash, pocket the change, exit store. End of transaction.

But not this time. First, the saleslady asked me whether I have a certain e-wallet account, so I could be eligible for a 5% discount. I said no, cash please.

Then, she asked whether I would like to apply for membership.

I said no, not interested. I don’t shop there regularly anyway.

Then, she suggested that I download the chain store’s own mobile app — available on Android and iOS — and explained that by downloading the app, I can collect points, get exclusive offers, and redeem points by buying more stuff at any store nationwide. I will have access to a dashboard complete with bells and whistles, all at my fingertips, not to mention notifications of upcoming sales campaigns.

I said no.

She then asked if I wanted to buy a shopping bag. She phrased it in the most middle-class way possible: rather than buying a shopping bag, I would be “making a contribution in support of their no-shopping bag campaign”.

No. I can put it in my work bag. It’s a small bottle — just 100ml.

Then, almost exasperated with my refusal to do any other transaction except paying in cash, she made a final attempt to upsell by asking me for my birthdate (and my IC to verify it). So I could receive a special discount for my upcoming birthday.

I finally said no for the last time.

After what seemed to be an eternity in the upsell limbo, I paid for the purchase, pocketed the change, said thank you, and left.

Call me old-fashioned but if I step into a store, I just want to buy something, pay in cash and leave. Why is it so hard to do so nowadays?

*RIP Mitch Hedberg

Life planning using to-do lists

The most useful tool in my life management toolkit is my to-do list, which I write on a .txt file (keeping it simple!) and update daily.

Most people think about their lives as a series of short-/medium-/long-term plans. While it is sometimes necessary to take stock of the present and plan for the future, what is more important for me is breaking down the plans into actionable to-dos that I can act on today or within the next few days. More important, I believe, than life objectives, bucket lists, new year resolutions, and other “big picture” blueprints for how I should live my life.

Sometimes, I talk about my visions for the future, but I rarely plan for them directly. My approach is breaking them down into small steps, which are necessary to achieve the next step, which in turn will lead to the next step, which hopefully will lead me, step by step, towards the desired vision at the desired time in the future.

For example, I do not make a plan to “get into the blockchain industry by 2021”. (This is just an example, I do not actively seek to be in the blockchain business, sounds like too much hype for now).

This is how I will plan it: This coming Tuesday, I will spend 2 hours in the morning to

  • read 5 short articles about blockchain
  • watch 3 videos on blockchain
  • order or download 3 books about blockchain
  • shop for online classes or upcoming conferences/talks on blockchain technology.

After I do these, then I follow up with plans for the week after, e.g., reading one book on blockchain technology within 5 days. And so on.

If something seems too far ahead, I stop planning for it and just wait until the time comes. It makes living less burdensome; no need to keep track of so many things at once.

On the flip side, I like to plan every small thing that I have to do. An actual item on my to-do list: This Friday, after office hours, I will go to Mr. DIY to buy a small tube of elephant glue, and then go home and glue back a fridge magnet that had been broken in half by my son. It was his favorite fridge magnet, in the shape of a Friesian cow. The head of the cow is attached to the body with a small spring, so the head will bob if you give it a slight touch (toddlers dig that stuff). There is a duplicate one on the refrigerator of my office pantry, but I will not take that one home but instead fix the one I have at home. If I don’t plan to fix it, then it will remain unfixed for many months (most probably, forever).

Judging a book by its cover

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is nonsense.

Book cover design is a billion-dollar industry. The cover of a book (including the front cover, the back cover, and the dust jacket) contains the title and subtitle of the book, the name of the author(s), their bios, blurbs, recommendations, retail price, i.e., most of the things you need to know in order to decide whether to buy a book. So we can make a decision even if the book is shrink-wrapped (I am looking at you, Kinokuniya).

Same in life. We often make decisions by looking at the surface. Imperfect, but damn efficient.

Let’s take the adage literally. Last week I went to a bookstore in Subang Parade. On the nonfiction shelf, I saw a book by Michael Chabon. I know him as a novelist (with a Fiction Pulitzer under his belt), but this is a non-fiction book.

Once I saw Michael Chabon on the cover, I need not check anything else. I immediately picked it up.

(The book is titled Pops, by the way, and it is about parenthood.)

Why the snap decision? Chabon is perhaps the greatest contemporary novelist that I have ever read. I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in college, which blew my mind, and I felt a bit sad when I got to the end. I have also read his other novels Wonder BoysThe Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and Telegraph Avenue, which, though not as celebrated as Kavalier & Clay, were masterfully written.

So anything by Chabon, I believe I can’t go wrong with.

(It was an ok book. The first chapter is my favorite. It is about his conversation, during a literary party many years ago, with an older writer whom he looked up to. The older writer warned Chabon against getting married and having children, and said that by having one kid, Chabon will miss out on writing one book in his lifetime. Chabon now has four kids and he mused about the hypothetical four books that supposedly never got written. Chabon concluded that he need not pay any attention to these literary stillborns; his 14 books and numerous literary awards attest to his ability to balance his writing career with family life.)

Similarly, I judge films and TV shows on Netflix by their “covers”. I don’t read in-depth reviews before deciding to watch something or not. A cursory glance at the synopsis and the list of actors/directors/showrunners often suffices to find good films and TV shows.

There were misses at times, for sure. The Irishman, starring the big-screen Mafia triumvirate Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro, and Al Pacino, is too much of a slow burn. The Kominsky Method, though featuring two legendary actors Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, didn’t do it for me, and I never went beyond the pilot episode. But most times, looking at the cover is enough.

In social interaction, the first impression is often the most important impression we have of someone. If it is underwhelming, there might not even be a chance for a second impression.

So, judge away. And conversely, put on a good cover if you want to be read.

This is another example of signaling I wrote about in the previous entry.