Life Itself

I want to be Roger Ebert when I grow up. Not just because he was the world’s most respected, famous and influential movie critic, but because of who he was. It’s his qualities that make him admirable, not his achievements. He is my first and so far only role model.

Roger Ebert - Esquire

When I read a typical film review, I can’t shake off the feeling that the critic is settling a personal score with the filmmaker. It is like a gang of kids who enjoy torturing stray cats behind an abandoned shed. Hitting, cutting, kicking and burning poor animal just for the feel of it. I heard somewhere that every critic secretly wishes he was a filmmaker himself and suspect that has something to do with all the vitriol. People who can’t taking it out on people who can.

Roger Ebert is (was) the only critic I know not afflicted with this camera envy. Even when he really disliked the film, he was never bitter or belligerent. He sounded genuinely disappointed, the way an old man might feel about the mess his wayward grandchildren have gotten themselves into. That comparison seems even more appropriate given how much Roger cared about cinema and how many modern filmmakers he helped to gain their footing.

I like movies too much. I walk into the theater not in an adversarial attitude, but with hope and optimism (except for some movies, of course). I know that to get a movie made is a small miracle, that the reputations, careers and finances of the participants are on the line, and that hardly anybody sets out to make a bad movie. I do not feel comfortable posing as impossible to please.

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Modern man’s search for meaning

Have you ever woken up and realized that you didn’t want to go to work?” This is what Kasey Edwards calls “being over it” and “loosing your give-a-shit”. You were an enthusiastic career climber for a couple of years and then, bang, you don’t see the point anymore. I have no idea why Amazon suggested to me the book called Thirty Something And Over It (has it been reading my blog?), but it hits the spot.

I long ago noticed that looking for meaning and satisfaction in work is the major trait of my generation. (Some also call it “sense of entitlement” and “narcissism”) Instead of just settling for something that pays the bills, we want to utilize our “creativity” and save the Earth in the process. It’s no surprise then, that none of the older self-help manuals quite help here. I’m pretty sure if venerable Viktor Frankl lived to this day, he would call me a self-indulgent wanker who needs a good whipping. And he would have a point: my search for meaning was prompted by getting a job at Google, while his – by surviving a concentration camp.

But I also feel like our modern problems, however petty, still deserve to be taken seriously. A writer once said to me that the world will never have enough books written. There will never be a point in the future when writers aren’t necessary because Dickens and Hemingway have said everything worth saying. The stories always need to be retold by new generations to remain relevant. In the same way, despite the glut of self-help manuals around, I feel Kasey Edwards is doing something useful by addressing the whole meaning-of-life question from the Gen Y perspective. Continue reading

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How nerds pack

I was looking forward to writing here about my meeting with Spike Lee, a director famous for Malcolm X, 25th Hour and a whole lot of other fantastic films, but now that it happened there’s nothing to write about. Except that people tend to have less stature in real life than you might assume from a professional headshot.

The few scenes I saw from The Sweet Blood of Jesus (his new film, funding which through kickstarter had brought me this adventure) were also troubling, but I’ll write it down on lack of post-production gloss. I’m sure (means hope), in the context of the whole film they will work better.

Somewhat disappointed, I went to Barnes & Noble at Union Square for some binge-shopping. 2 hours later, $130 lighter and with 5 new books, my spirits started to improve. Now I just need to find a way to pack them in my suitcase, in addition to 2 books I got from Spike and a small army I brought from home:

nerd_travel

Looks like some of my clothes will find a new home at Salvation Army, but I’m also feeling oddly proud of my nerdishness. Books are almost like pets in that sense: you make emotional connection with them. Which, I think, puts them a rank higher than handbags, beer cans and most other collectables. Plus, unlike pets, you don’t have to feed books and they don’t chew on your internet cable… Ok, I’m stretching this argument, but I’m still sure book-junkies are superior to most other addicts (:

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Who wants to be called a ‘ninja’?

When will you make something

Here’s an ambitious piece in New York Times which took me over a week to read. Today people tend to get very opinionated about Silicon Valley and startup world and most of the articles on the subject are remarkably one-sided. Here, Yiren Lu takes time to consider every issue from different angles. And he covers a lot of difficult questions, from accusations of agism to skipping college, from need to be “cool” to the second web bubble.

I particularly like how he gives voice to something that bothers me as well: lack of purpose in modern tech world, spawning technology just because we can.

I was asking a friend, a former computer-science major who now works for a hedge fund in New York, why he chose finance instead of tech. “There are so few start-ups that are doing things that are worthwhile to me,” he said. I protested: “What about Facebook?” He looked at me, and I thought about it. No doubt, Facebook has changed the world. Facebook has made it easier to communicate, participate, pontificate, track down new contacts and vet romantic prospects. But in other moments, it has also made me nauseatingly jealous of my friends, even as I’m aware of its unreality. Everything on Facebook, like an Instagram photo, is experienced through a soft-glow filter. And for all the noise, the pinging notifications and flashing lights, you never really feel productive on Facebook. A couple of months ago, I installed a Google Chrome extension called “Kill News Feed,” built by Neal Wu, a senior at Harvard who incidentally previously worked at the social network. Now when I absent-mindedly surf to Facebook.com, my News Feed is gloriously blank except for one line of text: “Don’t get distracted by Facebook!” it says.

I want to find that hedge fund manager and shake his hand!

Author also covers a touchy subject of age in the software world. (I would say “startup world”, but Google is not one and we have only few people over 40 here) Too often the cultural element in this debate is missed. Let me repeat it: culture is the key. Bank executives want to hire people like them, with shining black shoes, MBA and a necktie to match their suit. Startupers also want to hire people like them, with passion for latest technology, strong algorithmic skills and reasonable disregard for impossible. And, God forbid, no neckties. Both environments are perfectly normal and self-reinforcing.

Older engineers form a smaller percentage of employees at top new-guard companies, not because they don’t have the skills, but because they simply don’t want to. “Let’s face it,” Karl said, “for a 50-something to show up at a start-up where the average age is 29, there is a basic cultural disconnect that’s going on. I know people, mostly those who have stayed on the technical side, who’ve popped back into an 11-person company. But there’s a hesitation there.” The flip side of the kind of cohesion I saw at Stripe is that it can be off-putting to people outside the circle. If you are 50, no matter how good your coding skills, you probably do not want to be called a “ninja” and go on bar crawls every weekend with your colleagues, which is exactly what many of my friends do.

And more…

“Top tech companies emphasize rigorous algorithms problem solving and de-emphasize prior experience, which is where an older engineer is going to shine,” McDowell said. “Older engineers are also very likely not to have computer-science degrees; even if they do, C.S. was a completely different field 30 years ago.”

I could argue with few things in this article, but overall this is a remarkably mature piece from someone who, turns out, is only 21! (Am I being agist now?)

In conclusion, if you want to see a parade of belligerent bigots, read (many of) the top-rated comments for the article.

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XXX problem: extra small clothing in Sydney

Yes, I admit it, there were times in my life when I had to shop for clothing in children’s section. I imagine that’s how it feels to rummage for food in a garbage bin: you keep your head low and hope nobody pays attention. I’m not particularly small, certainly not by Asian standards, but even in Chinatown I can barely find anything below size S. And when I do, it turns out to be too big.

I see plenty of Asian men about my size (60kg/1.7m) in Sydney, but where do they shop? Until recently I was frequenting Giordano, but now they cut XS out of their size range. Right now, yd is the only store that spares me the indignity of going to Cotton On Kids and having Mickey Mouse on my shirt:

cotton on kids

Luckily, yd manufactures not only XS, but also XXS and XXXS (a little too little even for me). Politix has some small stuff too (marked as S), but they are on the pricey side. Anybody has other suggestions/experiences?

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Engineering problem

Recently a stranger asked me in an email “don’t you have a tech blog other than wideeyed.me?” No, not really. Despite being an engineer at Google and getting fair bit of traffic from my StackOverflow account, I have no urge to write about programming, software, gadgets and other tech stuff. I just don’t feel it’s… important to me. Yes, I like many things about my job (like not having to worry whether I’ll be eating anything next week), but it’s just a job.

When I was in kindergarden, I saw a colorful book where people of different professions described what they were doing. (Since I was so little, each one had a large picture and a very short description) Doctor in white coat and gangly policeman in blue uniform were saying “I cure people” and “I keep people safe”. Adults would ask “whom do you want to be when you grow up” and we were supposed to answer based on what we’d like to do for others. But as you grow up, the idea of doing something because of its value for others evaporates gradually. Instead, we settle for something that pays the bills and brings food to the table. The market decides for us what is valuable and we just plod along.

It’s also the reason why I’m reluctant to identify myself as an engineer. Nobody I met at work also takes any particular pride in what they’re doing. Yes, I worked with many extremely smart and committed people (it’s Google, after all), but I never got an impression that it’s more than just a job. Nobody there says “I’m making people’s lives better through my mobile app”. Sure, people try to make a successful product which brings them recognition and rewards, but it’s not about improving the world. And while I know there are passionate programmers somewhere, I never encountered one of them in person.

Naturally, I was trying to change that for some time. An idealistic side of me tells “be a teacher, musician, scientist, volunteer in Africa”. But I know that neither of those occupations brings meaning in itself. There are inspired teachers and there are teachers beaten down by life. Former take pride and satisfaction in their job, while later are just passing by. Might as well be an inspired engineer and not waste 10 years invested into that path.

I also wonder, who are those “not inspired” people? I mean, if you are not emotionally invested in whatever you’re doing, if it’s just a job, then you are not a teacher, musician or scientist. You just happen to work as one, but that’s not who you are. Unteacher and unscientist, maybe. Obviously, they are husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and relatives to someone, but who are they to the world? That leaves a great big hole in your life, that lack of connection to the world. The sort of hole eternal Bob Dylan often sings about.

That is why I picked up the whole writing idea and other outlets to invest my energy in. To feel like I’m doing something that matters, or at least that I’m trying to. I want to find a goal towards which I could invest all of myself: my intelligence, my tenacity, my sense of beauty and common sense, my optimism, my energy. Sounds almost like Theodore Roosevelt in his arousing and overused speech, but easier said than done.

So, how do you go about removing un- part and taking pride and finding meaning in your occupation? Is it about finding what really fires you up? Or is it about recognizing the value of whatever you’re doing now? One doesn’t change a lot by cleaning bedpans, but I can see how one could say “I’m a nurse” with pride.

If you got to this part, dear reader, bear with me for another 2 minutes and try an experiment. Go to a mirror and say “I am an XXX and I am proud of what I do”. See if you can say it without feeling comical or cynical. If you succeed, leave a comment!

PS Ah, Avenue Q. It has an answer to every problem!

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Life is what happens to you while you’re busy killing orcs

Life - tiny frog

One of my favourite quotes comes from a song by John Lennon, Beautiful Boy. It reads “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Life is in trivial things around us, like a butterfly which flew into your open window, smell of grass in the morning, light reflections in Sydney harbour’s water at night and taking a hand of someone you love. Preparing for the wonderful future, we often forget about now.

I happened to see two very different films today, Hobbit 2 and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. While watching the former, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of how irrelevant everything on screen was. We know that the dragon will be slain and the heroes will prevail. Every time Bilbo faces danger, he will jump out of sword’s blow or be saved by an elf’s arrow. Victory is inevitable and nothing is really at stake.

In Walter Mitty, everything is opposite. There’s no grand battle or big spectacle. What matter are the smallest possible things. The film starts out with a mystery: a negative by a famous photographer goes missing. It is his best shot and was intended to go on a cover of Life magazine. This greatly upsets life of the main character, Walter Mitty, who undoubtedly will be blamed for the loss.

In a Peter Jackson movie, that setup would lead to a treacherous plot to destroy the Earth and a climatic battle with Sauron for possession of the negative, which alone could save human race from extinction. At the very last moment, Walter would hit Sauron with his briefcase, insert negative into the Earth-destruction device and its timer would freeze at “00:01″.

But what follows in Ben Stiller’s film is incomparably less grand. The solution to the mystery is so trivial and ordinary, it’s almost disappointing. But by looking closely at those small things, the director finds emotions, humour, joy and life. More than I saw in the whole of Middle Earth.

In addition, here’s a beautiful song by Jose Gonzalez from the film (and the trailer). It was so very hard not to sing along during the credits, soon I dropped the resistance and joined the choir!

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The Great Beauty

the great beautyThe Great Beauty is such an unusual concoction of sights and sounds, it’s a wonder it works at all. Watching it is like seeing a walking bicycle and realizing, to your amazement, that one can actually ride it.

The movie follows Jep Gambardella, the king of Rome’s night life. Jep came to Rome in his twenties, after having written a very promising novel, but 40 years later he is settled as a journalist for a high-class literary magazine. Jep has friends, who are just as frustrated and unsatisfied with their lives as he is, despite having all their red Ferraris and high-rise condos. Together they keep each other company and form a support group of sorts. The presence of other miserable people convinces them it’s ok, the life is still worth living and facade is still worth maintaining.

Jep has invested last four decades into becoming the Rome’s chief socialite and now he has the power to make party a success or disaster. But there’s something compulsive about his pursuit of entertainment and admiration. Like a functioning alcoholic, Jep doesn’t enjoy his life, but has no will to change it either. He reminds me of Michael Fassbender’s sex-addict character in Shame. At the time of orgasm, Fassbender’s expression was not that of pleasure, but of pain.Shame - Michael Fassbender

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Tie me to a chair and leave for 12 hours

Blondie's Big Deal

A few months ago I went on a volunteering trip with some people from my work, most of whom I never met before. On a plane, I got to sit next to a woman from the Korean office and in those few hours I got to know her better than I know my teammates after two years of working together. When you’re bound to a place and have nothing important to do, talking to a stranger becomes much easier. You are less likely to start prioritizing tasks or writing emails. And it feels less awkward to start a conversation there too.

By the end of the trip, it seemed really unfair we were living in different countries. Still, we decided to keep in touch and last Tuesday she told me she was in Sydney for work. But, despite staying for almost a week, she was always busy. And so was I, for the record. We found time for a quick lunch, joined by one of her colleagues, but it was not nearly as satisfying as being tied to a chair. In the office cafeteria, there is always a spectre of work which never lets people relax and let go. There is always something to do and somewhere to go.

People often dislike air travel, but the in-flight time is one of the few places we truly disconnect from our schedules and our emails. It may not provide a lot of space, but it gives us time and silence necessary to reflect and to communicate.

I wish I could travel more in my work.

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Amazing Sydney fauna

Sydney fauna

As a child, I wanted to be a naturalist in the Brazilian rain forest, discovering incredible and dangerous animals. When I grew up, I found that being a naturalist in a city is just as rewarding.

hog

Not far from Mr Panda lives Mr Hog. His owner (right) has revealed to me a secret to getting lots of female attention: get a pig.

mad preacher

Mad preacher is warning us of impending apocalypse. I sadly missed the warning, I was too busy finding the perfect angle.

road workerA very mysterious, but nonetheless remarkable specimen. Possibly related to the genus Roadus Workerus.

pigeons

Patrons at my local coffee shop. This one is unhappy with his drink and looks for a waiter.

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