love, life, school and coffee.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

But in Top Gun they...

Pete stepped into the squadron briefing room, noted the outsider standing beside his squadron commander and nodded to the other pilots who were leaving the room and preparing for their sortie.
"This the reporter?" He directed the question to his commander, ignoring the outsider on purpose.
"Lieutenant Pete Mitchell, this is Jasper Ericsson, reporting for The Daily Telegraph. Do you have any other questions regarding the flight?"

Pete replied with a wave of his hand, "No, sir."

Jasper enthusiastically stuck his hand out for a handshake which Pete returned noncommittally. "Pete Mitchell? Like in 'Top Gun'? Your parents must have loved that show. I thoroughly enjoyed it myself! Do you also have a cool callsign like 'Maverick'?"
Pete was already hating this outsider even more. He had his fair share of fellow trainees, instructors, squadron mates and shipmates making fun of his name. This guy was late at the party. "Mitch Mash. That's my callsign."
Jasper's eyebrows drooped in disappointment.
"I'll let you know, Mr Reporter, that cool callsigns only appear in the movies. We don't get to choose our callsigns, and most of us don't like them either. Follow me." Pete spun round and started leading Jasper through the boat towards the flight deck.

"Alright, Mitch Mash, since we're on the topic of callsigns, can you tell me more about them? Are there really no 'Iceman's or 'Hollywood's?"
Pete sighed. He knew that he would have to entertain such silly questions from an outsider who didn't understand Navy culture when he first found out that he had been assigned a reporter observer. However, actually having to entertain his questions was harder than he had anticipated. "Ok, Scribe, callsigns can be assigned for any reason under the sun. We don't have a say on what our callsign will be and some of us will never understand why we were given such names in the first place. At least Boner knew that it had something to do with his antics during Fighter School Ball."
Jasper was initially puzzled, but quickly broke into a grin. He tried to keep pace behind Pete as the pilot ducked through the bulkheads effortlessly. "Did you just give me a callsign?" He asked breathlessly.
Pete glanced over his shoulder and asked, "What did you expect? Clark Kent?"

Pete allowed the ground crew to aid Jasper into the rear seat of the Super Hornet. His headset jack and oxygen tube got caught amongst the ladder rungs as he clambered clumsily in. Meanwhile, Pete performed his pre-flight inspection, making sure the AMRAAMs were secured, no fluids were leaking and nothing was out of place. He felt an immediate sense of coziness in the cockpit, like the warm embrace of a grandmother. As he taxied in position towards the bow catapults, he heard the roar of a Hornet being launched off the waist cat. "Oh boy, I've never been in a cat shot before!" Jasper remarked excitedly. Pete smirked and replied, "Just enjoy the ride."

The preceding aircraft launched off the cat, the jet blast deflector lowered and the ground crew rushed to their stations in preparation to launch his aircraft. Pete lowered his tow bar and followed the director's signals to line up onto the catapult shuttle. He verified the aircraft's weight that the green shirts held up on the board in front of him, followed the cat officer's instructions to apply full power and began to confirm full and free movement of his controls. "Whoa! Why are the controls moving in my cockpit?"
"Shut up and don't touch anything." Pete replied curtly, then saluted the cat officer. And then he waited. Pete never liked the wait before the cat shot. He's a naval aviator, if he wanted to do something, he always wanted to be in the thick of it. In a cat shot, the power was not in his hands and the sensation was... nerve-wracking.

Pete was off the end of the carrier deck, done with his clearing turns and had cleaned up his aircraft in a matter of seconds. He allowed the speed to build up as he maintained 500ft and waited for departure clearance to climb to his reporting altitude. Cleared up to "Angels Ten", Pete cranked the Hornet's nose up to sixty degrees and kept power to maintain 280 knots. Jasper was wheezing so loudly he could hear him over the intercom. "You alright back there, Scribe?" "Yes sir, just catching my breath. That was intense!"
Pete grinned to himself as he remembered his first cat shot and how he was a nervous wreck like Scribe was behind him.

Pete joined up with his flight leader, Vlad "Baron" Brakovic. He formed up on his lead and together they made a more leisurely climb to thirty thousand feet. It was an uneventful half hour before the airborne controller reported them in range of the target. Air Force One had been escorted by Japanese F-15s till it reached its cruising height and now they were turning back to their base. Baron's flight was to take over escort duties for two hours before being replaced by other members of the squadron. Pete swelled with pride when the Air Force pilots on board reported, "The President appreciates your company for this leg of the journey." He felt excited enough to break his icy demeanour with Scribe and asked, "He's at 11 o'clock, slightly low. Do you see him?"
There was a long pause before Jasper replied, "Uhhh, negative. How small can a 747 be? I can't seem to spot him."
"He's just ahead of my drop tanks from my point of view right now, so I guess your view of him is obscured by now. At least he's flying a predictable path. It's a lot harder in a dogfight against a small, agile fighter."

Pete started a 5G descending reversal turn to line up off Air Force One's right wing. Scribe started saying something when he started the turn, but fell silent, most probably focusing on preventing G-LOC. As Pete rolled out and positioned himself off the big jet, it appeared larger and larger and Jasper finally replied, "I can see it now."
"Tell me about dogfights, sir. You say you have to track the enemy fighter visually? They must be so hard to spot! I had the impression from Top Gun that targets look big and up close."
Pete gave a sarcastic snort. "Yes, targets look like tiny specks even when dogfighting. Sometimes we lose sight of them amongst the clouds, momentarily. The only way they look as big as Top Gun wants moviegoers to believe is when we're about to collide into them."
"No way! You mean the cool 4G inverted dive scene was impossible?"
"Pretty much the first thing we learned in jet training. There's no way a pilot can survive a negative 4G dive. Also, their aircraft were flying level, not in a dive. Finally, the F-14's tail fin itself is longer than the distance between the 2 canopies as portrayed in the movie."

Pete chatted with Jasper for quite a bit during an otherwise uneventful escort session. At times the ignorant reporter vexed his nerves, at other times, he seemed very willing to listen and very enthusiastic to learn. Pete felt a pang of disappointment when Jasper kept up a line of questions about why he's not in Top Gun, whether he will be getting too old to have a chance to enter such a course and when he will have to hang up his fighter wings.

With two new fighters replacing them as escorts, Baron and Mitch Mash started heading back to the aircraft carrier. They descended to a lower flight level to refuel from another F-18. "Trick or treat! 2500 pounds, please." After a few frustrating moments wrestling with the floating basket, Pete managed to dock his refueling probe into it and began taking on fuel. Jasper asked why he had said trick or treat, so he explained, "Cos I knocked on his door expecting goodies."

Pete descended towards the carrier, flew the left circuit pattern and was established on finals with gear, flap and hook down. He called the ball and turned his focus entirely on it. While carrier landings always filled him with an anxiety, an anticipation, the emotions always faded away against the needs of the moment. Whenever Pete started down the glideslope, flying with reference to the "meatball", his four limbs seemed to move with a life of their own. He would kick the rudder to induce a slight sideslip to keep up with the lateral motion of the angled flight deck. His throttle would be constantly moving, making the two jet engines whistle with growing and fading intensity. He would continuously move the stick to maintain the correct angle of attack for the approach and to line up with the centreline.

This time, Pete was slightly slow to correct at the start, allowing his aircraft to drop below the glideslope, but Pete never let the small mistakes bog him down. "Trap, 2 wire. Red deck." Pete followed the director's signals to a parking spot and shut down his aircraft.

After climbing out of the cockpit, Pete pulled Jasper off the heat and noise of the flight deck. In the relative quiet indoors, Pete said, "I hope you enjoyed your flight, Scribe. Now go write us a good story for our guys in uniform."
Jasper mirrored Pete's smile and threw a mock salute. "Yes sir."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Escape from Nahnia

Ben's head spun around him as the guards lowered him onto a chair. He felt weak, limp. The guards pushed the chair against a table and Ben took the chance to slump as comfortably as he could over hard, flat surface. He smiled to himself as he allowed his body to relax, even though he felt that he was being watched.

A figure across the table clicked on the table lamp, throwing light into the dark room. Ben's retinas burned despite his best efforts to scrunch his eyes close. His headache grew worse, a deep throbbing that seemed to increase in tempo before slowly fading away. He couldn't tell if it had really gone or that it was his body's way of saying that it had adjusted to the light. He cranked an eye open just a bit to acknowledge the figure at the other side.

"State your name, please." The figure spoke in deliberate tones.

Ben's throat was parched, he croaked a monosyllabic word that sounded roughly like his name. He noticed the figure cocking his head to one side, signalling Ben to something. He saw a glass of water, half empty, within an arm's reach. He emptied the half glass in a gulp.

The figure didn't allow Ben the time to enjoy the sensation of fluids cooling off the burning in his throat. He asked again, "Your name."

"Ben Goh," he replied. His lips curled into a smile as his thoughts wandered. "My friends called me Benji. Ben-G."

"What was your last memory?"
"I was held in a prison. Or a mental institution? How long was I inside?" Ben was surprised how quickly the words blurted out, when he was nursing a heavy head and a stiff tongue just moments ago. The thought that the half empty glass was water was actually a truth drug did occur to him, but he could never hold his concentration on that train of thought.

"What did you remember about the place, Ben?"
Ben's brain suddenly came alive with images, sounds, faces. Memories were suddenly unlocked and playing in front of his eyes. Ben felt himself being driven mad by the sensations of his memories and quickly, desperately, grabbed one particular image and focused on it. As the other memories faded out of focus, Ben felt his coherence come to him.
"The food was horrible. We were given chicken spare parts, chopped up beyond recognition. Duck meat always had feathers left on it. All the pork we were provided was fatty and oily. Oil! That's what coated everything that was served there. We'd see the same oily vegetables everyday."

"What else did you see everyday that didn't change?"
Ben felt that the interrogation was trying to lead him to saying something, but that damn truth serum was making it hard for Ben to formulate questions to ask in return. In fact, his mind would focus on the answers for each question the interrogator gave.
"We all had rooms, or cells. The whole building had cells that looked exactly the same. We couldn't do anything everyday. We'd stare at the walls that looked exactly the same all day, everyday. Hmm, I remember seeing a clock in the dining room. But it always showed the same time. It was probably broken."

The figure slid something across the table. Ben recognised his wristwatch wrapped neatly in a ziploc bag. Except it couldn't have been his watch. "Is this a trick? It looks exactly like my watch, it even has my name engraved on the back. But my watch stopped on the day I was brought in to the prison. It showed one thirty in my entire stay there. I was cursing my bad luck to have my watch stop on the first day entering prison. Why is this watch working again?"

"Do you remember who headed the facility you were in?"
Ben's thoughts immediately shifted from the questions about his watch to a particular face: "Superintendent Paul."
"We called him Super Paul. We obviously couldn't drink alcohol in the prison and there were signs everywhere reminding us that alcohol was not allowed on premises. However, we would see him drink merrily in his room. It's like he's deliberately taunting us. I also remember that he's obsessed about cost cutting. We used to get newspapers, but he stopped them. Some of the guards complained that their lack of inventory was hurting the experiment, but he brushed them off and said cost cutting was more important."
Another face appeared in Ben's mind. The chubby cheeks and neatly combed moustache was unmistakable.
"Super Paul was aided by his lackey Warden Kim Jong Phil. This character always gave empty promises and false hopes. I was told that I would only spend 44 weeks in, but 14 months later he was still promising 44 weeks! He promised me that the 'Golf project' was my ticket to get out, for 3 months he said it would be ready in the next week or so. The last I heard, the 'Gold project' never took off. 2 weeks ago, he told me I was to be released, but it turned out to be a hoax as well."

Talking about Kim Jong Phil, Ben's memories suddenly clicked into place. Phil was the last piece of the puzzle in Ben's mind. A spark lit in his eyes and he slowly lifted his head and looked directly towards the glaring table lamp. The words that he had just recited fell in order. Experiment. Time stopped. Psychological effects. Wanting out. 

The interrogator nudged Ben along with a few key words. "Do you remember signing up for the Nahnia project? You've just returned to the real world."

The Nahnia project was meant to observe candidates as they were put through an alternate reality. Based on Einstein's theory of relativity, time is not a constant. When a unit amount of time was observed in 2 different places that travelled at different speeds across space, both time pieces would show different results. Nahnia created a place, an alternate reality, where time stopped entirely relative to the rest of the world. The project was meant to study the psychological effects on humans held in such a place. Ben had signed up as a test subject but did not anticipate the boredom of being trapped in a prison cell the entire day. He wanted out, but release required a final psychological profiling that kept being delayed for months.

Ben's mind could finally coherently string a question, which he promptly asked, "Where am I? What is this place?"

The interrogator did not skimp on detail, perhaps because he knew such detail was safe to reveal.
"You finally made it through the psychological profiling. However, to keep the details of the Nahnia project from leaking to our competitors' hands, we kept you at this holding facility while your memories of the test were wiped out. The drugs left you feeling weak, nauseous and dehydrated. Welcome back to the real world. You make take your watch, it's working again."

Ben was led out to a waiting area, where he immediately spotted his girlfriend. She had a worried look as she waited silently for him to be brought out. Ben noticed that she no longer looked like the youthful student she was when she accompanied him to Nahnia's in-processing lab. She was dressed in a blazer with matching pencil skirt and wore high heels.

She greeted him with a kiss, to which Ben responded sheepishly, "Hey, dear."
"How's school been, dear?"
She looked offended. "Dear, the year is 2012. In our time apart, I've graduated and have stared working. I'm no longer the school girl you dated before Nahnia."
A pang of regret shot through Ben's heart. He had been so eager to depart for Nahnia that he had ignored the effect his decision would have on the people around him. Ben looked at the working watch he had on his wrist and overcame the regret with positive thoughts. "Don't worry dear, we still have a lot of time. I won't leave you again."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Steve Job's Stanford Commencement address 2005

I originally got this article from the Wall Street Journal. Original form is here:

Steve Jobs, who stepped down as CEO of Apple Wednesday after having been on medical leave, reflected on his life, career and mortality in a well-known commencement address at Stanford University in 2005.
Here, read the text of of that address:

I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories.
The first story is about connecting the dots.
I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?
It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: "We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?" They said: "Of course." My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

My second story is about love and loss.

I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

I really didn't know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down - that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple's current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.

This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it's the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960's, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Thank you all very much

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Adventures of Al Truist: Responsibility

Al Truist was all grown-up now and his time came about for National Service. Here, his strong desire to stand up for all that was just and right was noted by his superiors as "good initiative". However, his strong desire to argue with superiors to ensure that things were done the just and right way meant that he was also labeled "stubborn and argumentative" by some superiors. He thus couldn't qualify for Officer Cadet School as only the best and brightest made it there. An Army cannot function if its officers questioned their superiors about the way things were done all the time. Better for a sergeant to pester just one officer supervising him.

Al took to all his tasks with great gusto: he was sold on the National Education message of National Service. If his country needed a strong military presence to deter her neighbours from invading, if such a military presence would help provide foreign investors a sense of security, if such a military could strengthen the psychological resolve of some of his weaker-willed brethren, Al was glad to help out.

After completing his infantry specialist training, Al was assigned to become a squad leader at a rifle battalion. A new batch of recruits was to be trained up to become operationally ready servicemen and Al was supposed to train his new squad of recruits. He relished his job: maybe he could impart some of his passion for righteousness onto some of them.

The new recruits sorely disappointed him. They seemed like they were dredged up from the underbelly of the nation. Like bitter bile, they probably served some function in the body, but being so bitter, the body would rather not think about them until they failed to serve the body any longer. Some of them were all bark and no byte, some of them wore fiendish expressions and would turn on their comrades over the littlest things. Al once had to request help from thugs from another squad to help break up the fight between his thug recruit and Mr Bark-no-Bit. The worst recruits were the apathetic ones and the fools.

Using fists to answer problems didn't quite bother Al. At least they believed in what they stood for (even though they might be misguided beliefs) and were willing to fight for such beliefs. Al could see how he had been fighting for his own beliefs his whole life. What Al couldn't stand was when people couldn't be bothered with what was happening around them or were alert enough to consider what was around them but refused to respond. "The world will be a much better place if people were willing to take ownership of problems and stand up for what is right!" By golly, he, Al Truist, was going to change things!

Towards the end of a training stint, Al had to lead his squad through "THE GAUNTLET OF FIRE", or what the higher-ups sedately call the "Battle Inoculation Course". In this course, the recruits had to crawl through mud, under barbed wire obstacles and over logs, all the while being fired upon overhead by real machine gun bullets. Before they entered the live firing range, Al gave his squad a pep talk. Al loved pep talks as they gave him a reason to drop nuggets of his truths. "Alright gentlemen, please remember what the purpose of this course is. If terrorists ever manage to steal GPMGs from our armouries and were wrecking havoc along Orchard Road, it will be good to know what GPMG rounds flying over your head will sound like. Besides that, hugging the mud will also be your safest bet so once we enter the course, stay low and leopard crawl all the way to the other end of the gauntlet. Understood?"

Bark-no-bite asked, "Sar-germ, simi gauntlet?"

Al hurriedly explained to Bark and rushed his troops into their ready positions in a concrete ditch safe from the MG fire. His officer was already staring at him to keep to the tight schedule. On the signal from the officer, Al shouted, "Ok guys, let's go! Go! Up the ditch, hit the dirt and crawl to the end!" His squad gave a blood-curdling scream as they clambered up from the ditch, reminiscent of the sound Norse invaders made. Al's heart swelled with pride; he had trained bitter bile into fighting men. However, his heart quickly swelled even more with shock. Instead of dropping into a leopard crawl after climbing up the ditch, Took had stood up straight, unslung his rifle and began shouting, "Bang! Bang!" over the din of MG slugs snapping overhead.

From the safety of the ditch, Al ran over to Took and with a mighty leap, jumped up and grabbed Took's utility vest. Took lost balance and fell backwards. His feet slipped back into the ditch and his body followed suit, but his unslung rifle jammed across the ditch opening and the sling had wrapped around his wrist, preventing Took from letting go of his rifle. Took was evacuated to the hospital with a broken wrist.

At the investigation, Al's company commander asked Al if he had performed his duties according to the training manual. Captain Kotak was a commander who followed all the rules in the book. His contemporaries have been promoted to Major by flouting some rules here and there, but Kotak believed his slow promotion was a bad mix of his Malay/Javanese heritage more than anything else.

"Sergeant Al Truist, do you understand what responsibility is?"
Al smiled, "Yes, in fact, I added the official definition of responsibility into the SISPEC creed. Previously, it just said 'responsibility to your fellow men' but now it says 'answerable or accountable, as for something within one's power, control, or management, for my colleagues'."
"Then tell me Sergeant, if you were being responsible, how did Took end up with a broken wrist?"
Al seethed. He had done everything in his power and yet an accident occurred and now this officer seemed to be putting the blame on him.
"Sir, if you were being responsible for all the men in your company, how did Took end up with a broken wrist?"
"Mr Truist, I delegated my responsibility of looking after the well-being of my men to their individual squad leaders, people like you! You can't expect me to be responsible for everyone in the army! If I was personally responsible for Took, it should have been spelled out in some regulation!"
"Sir, if everyone had their responsibilities defined, there would be no room for initiative, for the 'thinking soldier' our army desires. I was responsible for Took's training, I briefed my men very clearly before we entered the range that they had to stay down once the got into the range. How is it my responsibility that this idiot didn't understand my instructions, didn't clarify and simply thought he had to shoot at the people shooting him? Isn't that what we had trained them for all this while? To return fire when fired upon? Did that not prove I discharged my responsibility in training him such that he at least understands the concept of returning fire?"
"Sergeant, you are responsible. If you had suspected that he would be better off being some village's idiot, you could have pointed it out to me. He wouldn't have been in that unfortunate predicament in the first place!"

Al fumed. He knew that had he done as Kotak had suggested, he would have gotten a reprimand for not being able to "mould the man", been told to keep Took in his squad, and suffer a poor appraisal at the end of the year. Al wanted to point out how unjust and un-right it was, but let it slide.

Al sarcastically remarked, "Sir, if I'm meant to be responsible about the men under me, and I didn't want to have fools in my squad, what is the width of my responsibility? Can I tell parents not to have kids if I knew that they might end up as fools in my squad? Is that my responsibility as well?"
The cynicism was lost on Kotak, who replied with a straight face, "If you had the power to find out which parents would eventually bear fools, then I'm sure it must be your responsibility to stop them, for the greater good of society!"

Al wished he could have told Kotak's parents that.

"Sir, does responsibility also work both ways? I'm responsible for the welfare of my men, but at the same time I have a responsibility to you, my superior, to execute your orders in as efficient a manner as possible."
"Mr Truist, I think you're beginning to learn something from this episode. It's heartening."
"Well, sir, how do you reconcile conflicting responsibilities then? If the general ordered you to attack the objective, you have a responsibility to him to fulfill that objective. But at the same time, you didn't want me to put Took into obvious danger, saying I have a responsibility to ensure he stays safe. You have a responsibility to your own men to not put them into obvious danger, which cannot be achieved if you discharge your responsibility to the general. No matter how you see it, sir, you will be irresponsible!"

Captain Kotak sat back from his desk, lips parted, wearing a dumbfounded look. He was either taking a very long time to process the scenario Al painted for him, or was trying to wrap his mind into finding an answer. Al sat back with a satisfied grin. He was glad whenever he could change a person's mindset to help them achieve all that was right and good. In fact, he felt better than glad. He felt right and good.

Saturday, July 16, 2011



Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money
Then he sacrifices his money to recuperate his health
And then he is so anxious about the future that he doesn’t enjoy the present
And as a result he doesn’t live in the present or the future
And he lives as if he’s never going to die
And then he dies having never really lived

- The Dalai Lama, 2011

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Regrets of the Dying

All credit goes to Bronnie Ware for writing this article. You can view it in its original form here:

I wanted to post this on my own blog just as a means of giving myself a reality check once in a while. I will not put any of my own value judgement in this post, it is for everyone to enjoy in its original form.

For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.

People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learnt never to underestimate someone's capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them.

When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.

2. I wish I didn't work so hard.

This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.

It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.

When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.

Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Short Story Project: Unpowered flight

Julius Mayweather parked his car outside hangar 22, at the far end of Offutt AFB, Omaha, USA. It was a compound within a compound, protected by 2 chain link fences and a 3 metre high concrete barrier within an Air Force Base which already featured tight security. When he stopped flying sorties protecting B-29s en route to Japan, Julius thought the war was over. Now, he wondered if the war truly ended.

It was the spring of 1948, perfect weather for flying. The skies were usually blue and cloudless and even spring showers hardly made their way this far inland. The only issues Julius had to factor in were the thermals rising up from the wide open tracts of bare land surrounding the airfield. While most of his friends from flight school and the 129th Air Combat Wing re-integrated themselves into society, working in factories and offices and schools to ramp up the productivity of a country that has spent too much in the last war, Julius still couldn't get flying out of his blood. Taking aircraft out on test flights didn't have the thrill of sitting behind a Merlin V12 engine, or the sheer adrenaline of having 6 Browning machine guns rattle the rivets off the airframe, but it still offered him the peace and freedom of being up in the air that no other job could afford him.

"You're late, Major Julius." Colonel Winters said, with arms crossed over his chest. Julius took off his cap now that he was indoors and grinned at his superior, "Well, sir, it's 830 and I'm on time. You are characteristically early." Beside Winters was a wiry man, just slightly older than the officer. Julius recognized him from the prototype development engineers department, but there were so many projects being developed, so many new technologies and so many people behind these projects that he didn't bother keeping social contacts with most of them. He recalled one engineer who had been so enthusiastic leading a project that involved launching aircraft vertically from rails. It was meant as a defence measure against high-altitude bombers, an attempt to get interceptors to altitude in as short a time as possible. It didn't work out because most test pilots blacked out from the sheer acceleration and couldn't recover the aircraft as momentum wore out and the aircraft struggled with its own power. He had lost 2 colleagues with that silly project. These scientists only care about their ideas and claim that they work on paper. It's test pilots like us who put our lives on the line refining the ideas.

"Julius, I'd like you to meet Marcus Finlay, lead designer for the prototype you're going to fly today." Julius extended his hand to greet Mr Finlay, who readily took it and pumped enthusiastically. "It's always a pleasure to meet pilots, Mr Mayweather. Especially after news of the Berlin Blockade and the air drops, amazing stuff. There's no doubt aircraft will pave the way for future warfare and we need good pilots to be at the heart of these machines." Julius kept his smile plastered on his face as he replied, "Well, sir, I was in the States while the Berlin Airlift was in progress, but it's a pleasure to meet you too."

Mr Finlay began on his brief even before Colonel Winters could start on it. "Gentlemen, since the war ended, Strategic Air Command has issued new directives for delivery systems for nuclear payloads. I'm sure both of you will have seen the B-36 go out for its training sorties. That's a magnificent aircraft, really huge! I don't think any other aircraft in history will get any larger than that. Most recently, a new aircraft powered by 6 turbojets went for its first test flight. Our aircraft are meant to go high up in the atmosphere to drop their nuclear arsenal.

"However, do you see a problem with going higher in the air? Oxygen! The B-36 needs oxygen in its piston engines while even the new jet powered XB-47 still uses oxygen to produce thrust. I have developed a solution to allow us to go even higher in the air!"

Julius brought his hand up and cleared his throat, "Excuse me, sir, but the benefits of higher cruising speed or increased range from being higher in the atmosphere are minimal. Why do we need an aircraft to go even higher or faster?"

Colonel Winters piped in with his take, "Julius, the communists are developing surface to air missiles that can reach altitudes of thirty thousand feet from the ground. Our recon aircraft have spotted such missiles reaching the aircraft's service ceilings before. Now, the moment they work out the kinks in the targeting system, we'll have a credible threat to our bombers. We have to be one step ahead!"

Julius reeled inside from the thought. He had been brought up and trained in the school of thought that only an aircraft will have the speed and performance to shoot down another aircraft. In fact, his whole role in the war was to protect B-29s as they flew into Japan and to shoot down any interceptors that came up against the lumbering bombers.The thought that an unmanned canister rocketing up from the ground could make fighter planes (and pilots) obsolete repulsed him. To him, air combat was the most glorious bastion for a pilot, a swan song of the old gladiatorial days when each man worked within the limitations of his equipment to outsmart and outplay the opponent. Then, remembering the limitations of the radar systems that helped win the Battle of Britain, he asked, "Such missiles will need radar systems to spot aircraft. Why can't we have aircraft that go under the effective cover of radar instead?"

Finlay laughed and said, "If you go low, you'll be shredded by the AA guns! Aircraft are much less efficient close to the ground so you'll need more powerful engines and more fuel capacity. The future of bombing lies in the highest reaches of the sky, not nap of the earth flying!"

Julius sulked inside. He hated it when his pride was hurt. Just a few years ago, his squadron commander was given a medal for supporting bomber operations in Japan. Fighter pilots were celebrated everywhere. Today, he was mocked by a scientist. He silently followed the two other men as they walked over to the new prototype aircraft.

While still displaying a visibly unhappy expression, Julius' heart leapt inside when he saw the clean lines of the new aircraft. It was very sleek and featured clean lines, with long, slender wings that had twice the span compared to the length of the aircraft. There were no propellers, no engine intakes and no exhaust ports.

"This is a proof of concept aircraft, so it wasn't designed with a large bomb bay. However, we needed to make it large enough to install a pressurised canopy. In true high-altitude flight, pressurised oxygen canisters will be used to sustain the flight crew, but the powerplant itself does not require any air."

Walking over to the tip of the drooping wing, Mr Finlay pointed out to a small protuberance on the top of the wing, near the leading edge. "Gentlemen, over here is a tiny Brownian Field Generator, the secret to this aircraft." It was the size of a matchbox and no thicker than a coin lying on its side. "I'm sure you've heard of the phenomenon of Brownian motion?"

"The erratic movement of particles in the air due to the high energy collisions between these particles?" Julius attempted to answer, desperately dusting the cobwebs around such information in his brain. He didn't want to look any more unintelligent next to this scientist. Mr Finlay smiled and clapped sharply once. "YES! Except instead of energising the particles randomly, we are creating a field of them to be propelled backwards to provide both thrust and lift. This is the very latest development of quantum mechanics."

Colonel Winters once again crossed his arms over his chest and asked, "How exactly do you excite the particles to move backwards? What's the power source?"

"We create wave-forms with the air particles that then travel over the top of the wing, thus generating lift. Also, because of the mass of air that is pushed back, the aircraft is naturally pushed forward. It's like a propulsive wing!"

"What? Wave-form of air? Air is just made of different particles!" Julius was quite sure this scientist was distorting his reality of physics as taught by his secondary school teachers. No matter how he wrapped his mind around it, air will always be particles to him.

Mr Finlay had a grim smile on his face. "Gentlemen, have you heard of the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment? In it, Dr Schrodinger attempts to explain how a subject can be in two states at the same time. Sealed in a closed box with a vial of poison that can be triggered by a random event, the cat can be alive and dead at the same time to outside observers, until the box is opened and his state is revealed. Similarly, light can exist as waves, which is the form we're familiar with, and also as photons, little light particles. Normally, they exhibit the properties of the wave form, but when you observe a single particle, it exists only in its particle form. The wave-form of air particles is cutting-edge quantum theory put into practice."

Julius already had enough of Mr Finlay's lecture, so he asked, "Sir, just explain how differently it handles from a normal aircraft."

"Quite simply, because airflow is continually energised over the top of the wing, the aircraft has a ridiculously low stall speed for its wing loading. We're talking about 20 knots, something even your speed indicator can't show. Also, the wave-forms will build up when more air compacts against the leading edge of the wing. In essence, the faster you go, the faster you accelerate. Do not expect the throttle response of the P-51 Mustangs you flew in the war."

Julius detected slight sarcasm from the scientist, but he brushed it off and moved on, "I'm a test pilot, I've moved past flying just Mustangs. Alright, let's get cracking."