I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.
– Albert Einstein, from “The World as I See It”
Came across the above in a book I am reading (“Ganesha on the Dashboard” by V. Raghunathan & M.A. Eswaran). The book attributes this quote to Bertrand Russell, but the Internet attributes this to Albert Einsten. I’ll go with the Internet.
Reading this quote blew my mind. That’s exactly the argument I too have about God! Each time my wife or parents insist I visit a temple or pray that’s exactly what I go through in my mind. The God I can conceive of does not punish me for my “mistakes” nor is capable of rewarding me for “good deeds” or “prayers”. A “God” who does all these is simply not a God for me. Such an entity might be a demigod or some other force, but definitely not God.
God (or Tao or the force or whatever) made us and everything around us. If we behave a certain way the onus of those decisions are on us. God gave us a brain and thought processes. Right and Wrong are relative and while there are many things that are Wrong for everyone, it is up to each one of us to discover and feel this for ourselves. Simply classifying something as Wrong and/ or not doing Wrong deeds even though we may not agree, but going along with it just coz God said so, is not the right way to do it in my opinion.
All that aside, the last line of the quote is another thing that resonates so well with me. The world is something. WE are something. There’s a beauty in it all, a mystery. The journey is the thing, not the destination. Putting up a God and chasing after what He/ She says isn’t the end goal for me; the end goal is the discovery. Of discovering the world around me and also the world within me. The “growing” I do – of my values, frames of reference, what I find to be right and wrong – that is the important thing.
Of course Einstein conveys all this much better than I do an in fewer words! Amazing!
Some of my colleagues call me “Mr. Fix It” while the users I support call me a magician. That’s because I am good at fixing problems and getting to the root of an issue. I tend to immerse myself in the problem I am solving and easily pick up whatever techniques and knowledge that might aid in troubleshooting. I think this is because I have a problem solving mind and I enjoy finding out why things don’t work the way they are supposed to. My mind likes to understand how things work and fit together. Not all things mind you so I wouldn’t really call myself a geek, just things to do with computers. The weirder the problem is, the happier I am to take a stab at it! And my day is made if solving a problem also involves me picking up new stuff I didn’t know so far.
Now, in the context of my work life this is a very useful skill to have. I think it gives me an edge over my colleagues because I am like a hungry warrior. They might be stronger and bulkier than me (read: know more stuff than me because of experience) but they are not as hungry nor do they live for fixing stuff. As long as things work, they are happy to let it be. They don’t go about poking beneath it or ask questions to understand why things are so. Nor do they lose themselves in a problem and chase it down to its end. These are advantages I have over most people I have worked with, and I am happy about that.
But take these skills out of this context and they backfire. When my wife tells about a problem for instance, my mind goes on a tangent thinking how to fix the problem. I ask questions to try and understand the problem. I offer solutions – maybe crazy ones – to try and solve the problem. And if she gets put off by the questions or doesn’t like the solutions, I just move on because as far as I am concerned there’s nothing more for me to do. My mind lacks the emotional element that empathizes with her. It doesn’t understand that sometimes asking more questions isn’t the correct response to the situation. It is not willing to just listen to the problem without thinking of ways to solve it. And if the problem is something which I can’t find a solution for immediately – most “life problems” are that way – then my mind ends up ruminating over it as is my nature. That doesn’t work well for such problems; so rather than get bogged down it, a more practical part of my mind kicks in and tells me not to ruminate like this. That’s easier said than done, so over time I have developed a shield to such situations – if the problem’s fixable, I offer suggestions; if it’s not, or the other person doesn’t seem interested, I just don’t care about it. Which again doesn’t work out well in this context because now I give an impression of someone who doesn’t care! Not only am I a jerk now who can’t empathize and keeps asking questions, I am also someone who actively doesn’t care and blocks himself from the situation.
Context is everything!
These same skills and strategy however work well when it comes to work colleagues and users. When a colleague calls me up to talk about some work problem they don’t really want empathy or for me to care much. They want someone who listens and offers practical suggestions. They want someone who can offer a different point of view to the problem. They want zero emotional investment from you, just a listening box.
Had the above illumination when I was driving to work today, so thought I’d put it down before I forget …
Today I got the answer to a question that had bothered me many times.
The question was this: I work as a System Administrator and encounter plenty of users who are clueless about computers and don’t seem to want to learn anything about it. I understand the cluelessness but I don’t understand their disinterest in learning. Because the way I see it computers are a tool aiding them in their tasks and isn’t it better they know their tools and at least a basic understanding of how it works, it’s problems, quick fixes and workarounds? Of course the fact that they are not bothered to pick this up is what gives me a livelihood and so I shouldn’t complain, but still…
The logical answer I used to give myself was the economic theory of comparative advantage. In a given amount of time these users are more productive doing their actual work rather than fixing or learning computers, and so it makes sense for them to be illiterate about these tools. They are better off using that time to learn their field and leave it to engineers like myself to understand and fix computers. Somehow that answer didn’t feel right though.
Today, at my in-laws home, I volunteered to fix a broken door. Houses in Kerala often have a door frame with a mosquito net on it. This allows residents to keep the main door open and this door frame closed – letting air etc flow from out to into the house, but keep mosquitoes out. In my in-laws case, however, the net had come out and they were waiting for the net people to come and fix it. I too never bothered with it until a few minutes ago, when perhaps due to having just finished the excellent “Superman Earth One” and so feeling intellectually stimulated and hence enthusiastic to try things out, I had a look at the frame to see what was wrong. Turns out it was simple. The net is held into the frame by a rubber padding and that had come out due to the dog thrashing against the net; all I needed to do was put the net in place and push the rubber back in. Not an easy task – due to the heat and the blood sucking mosquitoes outside! – but not too difficult either. So I spent about 15-20 mins fixing it and now I am pleased about a job well done.
Doing this however made me realise why the comparative advantage explanation wasn’t satisfactory for me. Yes, in the time I fixed this net I could have learnt some PowerShell or read the latest features of Windows Server 2012 R2 – and that would probably be a better use of my time as well – but the thing is doing something else (like fixing this net) too helps me in a different, unmeasured way. I know more about the door now, I have a sense of accomplishment, and I think more importantly doing a physical activity switched my brain from a bookish mode to a physical mode and so gives me a different perspective on other things too. Probably it won’t in this case, but maybe if I had some problem in my head such a change of context could have spurred my brain to take a break from it and tackle it differently. And that’s why I didn’t like the comparative advantage theory. It doesn’t take into account all the unmeasured factors and so the explanation wasn’t satisfactory for me.
In the case of my office, if the users took some time to learn their computers better perhaps that would lead to a better understanding of the system and its limitations for them. Perhaps this might lead to them being able to better explain to IT what they need. Perhaps they will appreciate computers more and in turn be more productive. And perhaps they will stop treating computers (and by extension technology) as some new fangled thing that they don’t understand and which only alienates them from work and others. Perhaps…
I am reminded at this point by the Chautauqua in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. The author mentions similar points though much more eloquently. We need to expand our reasoning systems to include technology. We don’t, and that’s why it feels alien to us. Replace technology with whatever one is doing. It applies to work such as fixing doors, motorcycle maintenance, computers, cooking, cleaning, and so on.
Today I want to write about shaving.
The past few days I have been experimenting with “wet shaving”, which is the traditional form of shaving where you use a shaving brush and razor. I was inspired to try it by an article I read some time ago, coupled with boredom and a general dissatisfaction with my current shaving methods.
I used to hate shaving. For many reasons. One, I felt like I was being cheated by Gillette and others into using expensive razors with low blade life that I had to change frequently and weren’t giving me a good experience. Two, the process of shaving itself was so boring and mechanical. No involvement to it, you just shave shave shave and are done with it. This leads to a lackadaisical attitude while shaving with the result that most of the time my shaves weren’t perfect. Three, a combination of the previous two points – I wasn’t happy with the quality of the shave. It wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be, and usually within half a day of the shave I’d find plenty of rough patches on my face.
I experimented with alternatives of course. Tried disposable razors for a while – that took care of my first issue (expensive blades that need regular changing) but the quality of the shave wasn’t any better, and worse disposable razors tend to be less accommodating and so there’s more chances of nicks and cuts on your face. Still, I used to alternate between disposable razors and regular ones just to spice up things.
I also tried electric razors for a while but they weren’t much fun. Took ages to get a decent shave and then too it wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be. Electric razors are useful for trimming and styling but I never got used to them for regular shaving.
Now on to traditional shaving. I don’t have any of the “good” equipment mentioned in the article coz I live in Oman and you don’t have that many options here. I wonder if anyone here even does traditional shaving – maybe just the low class people who can’t afford disposable razors either! That’s the impression I get from the limited (and cheap) razors available here.
This limited variety is fine I think. I managed to get a short razor – short in the sense the handle is short unlike lost other razors I have seen. And I got some random shaving brush and also shaving cream and blades by a SuperMax (no particular reason for choosing this brand, I had seen their disposable razors before so it wasn’t unknown to me). All this doesn’t really matter though, I think, because the big thing about traditional shaving is the experience. Unlike all other shaving techniques where it’s just a mechanical task you complete as soon as possible, traditional shaving is more involved and (to me) is sort of like a meditation. You are “in the moment” of shaving. Your mind is focused on the task and your thoughts are concentrated on what you are doing. With each stroke you pay attention and that lends the meditation feeling I was referring to.
I spend about 10-15 minutes shaving this way. And usually put on some relaxing music in the background. The net effect is some time to myself where all I do is spend quality time with myself and my face, pampering the face for a good shave and enriching the mind with calm and peace. It’s not like I spend this time thinking much. Rather it’s the absence of thoughts and the state of just thinking nothing but the shaving is what I am referring to. A zen state of mind.
I just finished reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance” the other day and a lot of what the author talks about makes sense in this case too. Life nowadays is about a subject and an object. It’s about us doing something just for the sake of it – in a mechanical way – without really being in the moment with it, without being one with it, and that’s why life seems so hollow nowadays and we feel things like technology are alienating us and degrading the quality of life. That resonates in the case of shaving too in this case. Previously I used to shave mechanically, but now I am in it. And that gives great peace of mind. To be in that state when shaving I have to start with peace of mind, so the influence of the shaving extends to before the event too.