29 May 2008

Alarm Madness

Not too long ago, I mentioned the spanking new unit block next door to us.

It's the most bizarre robotic looking thing.
I think it wants to be dernier cri architecture but is trying way too hard. My feel is that it's overdone and screams for attention. All was progressing well, until the landscape designer decided to overload the entrance with an asymmetrical steel pergola structure just above the outside stairway. The central facade of the building is a brown tacky number, it doesn't even look painted. Standing back to look at the building, one gets an uneasy sense that the builders ran out of some materials and improvised in the best way they could. More distressing is that for some of the fixtures, it seems that the designer couldn't make up his mind whether he wanted chrome or steel.

And the roof... Don't get me started on the roof. There's enough sharp corners and manga style protrusions to believe that if the building wanted to take off and transform itself into a car or a spacecraft, it damn well could!
In fact since January, we have given this hideous unit block a nickname.
We call it Optimus Prime. :)

Optimus Prime units sell for no less than 730K. So that's a good thing for us from a real estate point of view. And ever since it's landed on our street, it has given the previously empty block of land next door, an eccentric face lift.

But there's been a couple of dodgy things happening.

One of them is a bit of a joke. Around the start of the year, the builders celebrated by taking a "secret dip" into the common swimming pool. My private investigator (aka Jason) told me that one afternoon, a bunch of loud, hard yakka blokes took a break from their hot day's sweaty labor by enjoying a cleansing splash in the cool waters of the backyard. Oh, they had fun. You can bet on that.
Not so sure that the new unit dwellers would be very thrilled to know about this...

Here's another dodginess. Ever since the new owners have moved in, my nights are often - say, around once a fortnight - interrupted by an obnoxious alarm. It usually goes on for about a minute and then turns off. We've never really sourced the problem until last night. Last night was the worst. It sounded three times in a row, each time lasting for at least 10 minutes and we didn't get to sleep until 1:30am. Around 1:00 am, Jason went outside for a reconnaissance trip. He discovered that it was not a car alarm as we had previously assumed but that it was the hyperactive security alarm from the building next door!
Bloody Optimus Prime was malfunctioning!!

This was confirmed when we heard the frantic phone conversation between one of the next door neighbours and her body corporate. Apparently, the tenant didn't know how to turn the damn thing off. She had already rung security and they were not responding. Who knows, perhaps, they too, were taking a midnight dip in some high profile swimming pool...

26 May 2008

Old People, Young People

I was recently telling a friend that working through my family's genealogy has been a journey in self-discovery. What I like most about delving into the past is coming face to face with the achievements of other people. I love the realisation that no matter what I do, know, achieve, no matter where I travel or what experience touches me, someone, someone in my past has already done this before me.

That realisation is profoundly humbling. It redefines one's life and gives it meaning, not as an isolated entity, smug in its uniqueness, but as part of a pattern, something greater, universal which has been shared by generations and will continue to be shared for years to come.
This is what my ancestors tell me. That I am not alone and what I have seen and done, they have seen it all before. The thought brings me much comfort.

But don't misunderstand, this realisation is not strange to me. I have never been the sort of person who looks down in disdain at the older generation with conceited thoughts about the superiority of my youth, neither was I convinced that I would live life as no one else had before me, that I would pluck each second and extract every moment, every adrenalin induced pulse, climb every peak and conquer every obstacle.

On the contrary. When I look at the elderly around me, I ask myself many questions. What was their childhood like? What were they like as a teenager? What have they seen in their life? What joys, pains, experiences, disappointments have made them who they are today? What was their greatest journey, achievement, love? I do this out of curiosity. I do this because in a way, it is an intrinsic part of the writer's mentality. I do this because I want to know where I am going and where I have come from. And, to some extent, I do this because I hope that when I too, am 80 or 90, someone young with a different culture and outlook from mine, someone at the prime of their life, without a wrinkle or grey hair, will deign look at me with curious eyes and also wonder, who I was and what I lived.

I wish there were more mainstream films or TV shows featuring older generations. It is unrealistic for our society to spend so much effort on maintaining a youthful appearance, building a nest egg, living longer, wanting to be healthier and any other activities associated with enjoying a longer lifespan when the media - and therefore, the social and cultural psyche - are not adapted to or accepting of old age.

What a farce it is that while society is now living longer according to demographics, and that the buying power of senior citizens is very significant, still, the media faces appear younger and younger. It is a joke that Western society plays on itself.

To truly enjoy old age, Western society needs to not just be physically and financially adapted to it. It needs to relinquish those absurd ideas that life is only worth living when young. And don't get me wrong, I love the images of youth. Youth is beauty. And I know that youth sells. What I am saying is that we are shooting ourselves in the foot if while we aim to live for many more years - at least according to the effort we seem to spend on this, especially medically - we continue to alienate ourselves from what it means to be old. It seems to me a contradiction. Shouldn't we be a little more curious and eager to know about old age? It makes no sense.

And so yes, I would like to see more about the older generation in movies, soaps, comedy shows. I want to know about older customers and what they think. Of course I am not saying I will be like them, since every cohort understandably differs. But I can still learn something.

In fact the more we ignore old age, the more prejudiced we are about it and the more afraid we are about it. I have something to shatter your stereotypes. My grandmother travels more than I do. Possibly more than a lot of young people. She is 85 years old this year. In the last 20 years, she has been to Spain, Germany, Corsica (more than once), Canada, Wales, Australia (more than once), Hawaii (more than once), the South of France, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Pennsylvania, Vietnam and she is currently planning a trip to Vietnam and Australia for September. She might also be going to New Zealand at the end of the year. My grandmother likes to play computer games. She still cooks and is still mentally sharp. Like me, she loves history. She also enjoys watching the Discovery Channel and other travel shows. She goes out often and does her shopping weekly, catches the tram to visit the dentist regularly.

Here's another thought. When Jason and I were in the Schwarzwald (Blackforest, Germany) in 2005, we stayed in a gorgeous Chalet-style hotel on the top of a hill. One night, we decided to dine with the rest of the guests, in the hotel restaurant. It was a friendly, warm environment and the hostess made a fuss of reading the extensive menu to us in two languages (she couldn't speak English very well and had to say a lot in French so that I could translate to Jason). She mouthed every item in the menu as though she were savouring it and salivating with anticipation. I could tell she loved her job. And she was good at it: we felt very pampered. The dinner was excellent, it had one of the best portions and food quality I've ever eaten in my life. I looked around the room and I realised that we were the youngest people there. The other guests were all about 50 years at least. It was not the first time in our travels that we found ourselves outnumbered by older people who were enjoying life, eating well and having cultured, interesting conversations (I eavesdropped a couple of times).

My experiences are probably different to those of others. Besides, not all elderlies can afford to travel, for example. But what I am trying to say is that old age is not ugly. In some ways it is more enjoyable.

In my psychology classes, we discussed prejudices about the aged. It was interesting to learn that according to recent studies, thinking positively about getting old can increase your lifespan by 7 years. For example, the mere thought that one is getting old and that one should just 'accept' physical ailments as a natural process of ageing, can often deter an individual from seeking proper medical attention. This way of thinking only worsens their medical condition and therefore potentially shortens their lifespan. Positive attitudes towards getting old are also associated with less hearing problems.

Overall, our own expectations about old age serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Psychologists have studied these old age expectations in several countries. They found that China has better and greater expectations about the aged group.

In China, for instance, old people are revered and expected to contribute much more fully to social and political life than is common in the West.
-Brown, Rupert. Prejudice: Its Social Psychology. Blackwell Publishing, 1995.

According to an experiment by Levy and Langer (1994) which tested several groups of people aged 59-91 years, Chinese subjects outperformed American subjects in four memory tasks. Similarly, Chinese subjects reported more positive attitudes towards ageing than did the American subjects. For this age group, the study found a positive correlation between memory performance and attitude towards ageing: the more positive the attitude towards ageing, the better the performance in the memory task.

If we want to enjoy old age, we first need to change our attitude towards it.
Let me extend this thought.
If we want to be serious about enjoying life, especially given that today, a lifespan of 80 years represents thirty or so years of being OLD, we need desperately to modify our outlook on old age.

This social change can be accelerated by featuring more aged people in films, television programmes and advertising. The media portrayal of the aged should cease to reinforce certain stereotypes (unattractive/grumpy/helpless/asexual). Take a look at how Europe portrays that generation, there is a difference. I personally find that senior European actresses seem more respected in their respective countries and are still allowed to be sexy for the camera. Think Catherine Deneuve, Marie-Christine Adam (particularly in Priceless/Hors De Prix), Fanny Ardant and Belen Rueda. Education needs to play a role in valuing the aged and most importantly, Western family values should again teach children to show more respect for the aged.

I applaud the long scene in the recent film "Love in Time of Cholera", which featured a 70 year old couple making love. The director did not attempt to hide the realities of life and by not attempting to hide them, he promoted them. The less we hide something, the more acceptable it becomes. The aged DO have a sex life, get use to it. More scenes like these would be welcome. In fact it seems ironic to hide that old people have sex when according to psychological research, old people report greater satisfaction with their sex life than young people.

Enough said.

13 May 2008

The Carnivorous Vine and the Monitor

If you think this title is corny just wait until I tell you about my dream.

It was actually a nightmare but after years of experience with terror filled visions, my unconscious is now adept at moderating nightmares and actively intervening at the right moment to achieve a PG rating rather than an R rating.

By intervening, I mean that I can, to some extent, control my dreams and lessen the horror to come. This implies that usually, I somehow know about the worst that is to come...
It's a little like a privileged preview of the dream. I sit there, watching the dream's frames flip by in fast forward motion, glimpsing the horrific climax and then I stop, rewind, take a deep breath and watch the dream at normal speed.

In an emergency, I can self-willingly fly, become invisible, shape shift, penetrate through walls, move objects through telekinesis...I'm very powerful. Through my touch, I can also pass my powers to others in order to protect them. So if I want to make you invisible, I only have to touch you and make myself invisible. When I disappear, so do you. That way, the boogie man (or something more out of the ordinary from Laura's monster catalogue) will no longer see either of us and we can be safe together. Or if I want to fly away and take you with me to escape an evil place, I can also do that by holding your hand.

The sum of all this, is that what usually threatens to be a nightmare, becomes just a dream.

So a couple of nights ago, in a potential nightmare, Laura borrowed a monitor from uni and placed it in a lab room. Who knows why I needed a monitor from uni but it's a dream and I'm sure there was a useful purpose behind it.

It was an Apple monitor by the way. Why do you think that is? I've never owned one...

It was haunted.

After placing the monitor in an empty lab room, I reached out to touch the screen (for some reason, don't ask). I then watched with great alarm as a red spidery web began to etch itself on the monitor's surface. The web spread into fine, hairlike veins and reminded me of a cracked mirror.

And that's when it happened. A leafy green vine almost five centimeters in diameter jutted out of the center of the web and began to extend and grow out of the monitor - yes, that's the Apple monitor, you haven't lost me - it continued to grow, reaching out to the four corners of the room and threatening to crash everything in its path. Think "The Fountain" when the tree of life shoots out of the conquistador and that's approximately the effect in the dream.

Except it was a carnivorous vine.

So there was a lot of carnage. The vine killed and devoured everything in its path with its many little green jaws armed with pointy little piranha teeth.

Being a lucid dreamer, I decided that I hadn't died and that I was somehow floating around the room avoiding the vine tentacles. A bit like in a computer game where you have to dodge things. I had already calculated that it was a plant and therefore needed light for photosynthesis and to grow. Whoever said that high school science was useless? It could just about save my life...

So I shut the blinds. What do you think happened? The monstrous thing was so sensitive to the absence of light that it soon retreated back inside the monitor, at a frightening rate. The red crack disappeared from the screen and everything went back to normal apart from the smashed glass doors (I forgot to mention that the lab had glass doors...) and the couple of dead people lying around the corridor outside the lab.

With my heart pounding, I decided to return this haunted monitor back to the university. Somehow, I met my current psychology tutor and returned the monitor back to her. That's where it becomes laughable. I expertly told her that she could use the monitor without any issues but that she would have to close the blinds and avoid touching the screen...

Of course initially she didn't believe me. Who the hell would. So I demonstrated. Leaving her office blinds open, I gently touched the monitor's screen until the red spidery web appeared. Then as soon as the demonic vine made its appearance, and I was satisfied that she had seen it, I quickly shut the blinds to avoid a situation. My tutor was now convinced that there was a carnivorous vine living inside her monitor. All she had to do was follow my instructions and she, along with the other people around her, would be safe.

I could do with some dream interpretation.
Now, just where is Joseph when you need him?


I guess this makes me a Natural according to this article on Lucid Dreaming.

"Naturals" are Dreamers that have been lucid dreaming since before they knew what lucid dreaming was, and before they attempted to have lucid dreams.
Naturals are a lucky few, who almost qualify as an entire subculture on their own.

Did you read that? I'm one of the lucky few!!! Go me.

5 May 2008

The Passive-Aggressive Boss and the Quest for Competent Managers

Last night I dreamt that I was working for a short, hairy, incompetent Mediterranean man with a deep insecurity complex and strong manipulative tendencies. I would classify this dream as a nightmare.

I woke up overjoyed to find myself in bed, snuggled under what I've baptised my purple marshmallow-like duvet, enveloped in a sea of aquamarine sheeting and feeling the total bliss of not working for a Passive-Aggressive controller with an insecurity complex. It was only a bad dream.

The Rundown on Passive-Aggressive Controllers

In her book, "Coping With Difficult People", Arlene Matthews Uhl describes this type of controller as "angling for control, but having learnt to do so indirectly."

This person:

1. Repeatedly promises to do things and then "forgets".
2. Continually finds seemingly plausible excuses to delay taking action.
3. Withholds important information (or sometimes money or other resources) so that you are unable to take necessary actions when you need to.
4. Evades direct questions by offering vague or ambiguous responses.
5. Sometimes sulks and plays "poor me".
6. Expends extreme effort to maintain a friendly, cooperative persona.
- Arlene Matthews Uhl, Coping With Difficult People, Penguin Group, 2007

Other tactics I have personally recognised in this type of controlling manager and which border on deception include:

1. Keeping the ball in your court to keep you responsible and feeling guilty. For example, you raise an important issue that they have failed to address, they ignore it. Then they raise a seemingly unrelated but petty issue that you need to address yourself.
2. Failing to recognise your efforts (since this only highlights their own incompetence).
3. Being only too happy to help undermine your confidence (usually by voluntary omission of supportive, positive feedback).
4. Playing you against other people. They believe they can get you to do exactly what they want through favourable/unfavourable comparisons with other people. These comparisons seem perfectly innocuous so that they can not be accused of manipulative tactics.
5. Organisational changes occur suddenly and without warning and often these changes are at odds with what you have been previously told by your manager.

The book goes on to say that dealing with this person is very frustrating. They control by saying yes when they mean no, by stonewalling or playing the victim.
They dread confrontation and are afraid of conflict so they operate covertly.
The remarkable thing is that they often leave you baffled, insecure and perhaps feeling guilty!!!

"They're exceptionally adept at gaslighting, making you feel as though you're the problem...if you buy their spin, you'll end up apologising to them."
- Dealing with Difficult People

Gaslighting is described by Uhl as the "practice of getting someone to doubt themselves, dismiss their own reactions and perhaps wonder if they're mentally unbalanced."

She also gives tips on how to deal with this type of controller. There are actually four types of controllers, would you believe, and the book identifies other problematic individuals at work including Narcissists. Her tips for dealing with the Passive-Aggressive Controllers include:

1. Remind yourself of your accomplishments.
2. Think of the positive feedback you've gotten from others in the past and the present.
3. Don't share knowledge with them. If your plans do not concur with their plans, they can make your life difficult.
- Dealing with Difficult People

The author explains that you must be especially careful what you reveal to covert controllers.

The Issue of Trust

I actually found the book frustrating to read. Granted it was highly illuminating and I would eagerly encourage it to anyone dealing with difficult work colleagues.

But take a look at point 3 in the previous paragraph. What's wrong with it?

Well to begin, I tend to think that TRUST is the foundation of a good business relationships. I am an idealist, I strongly value trust in all my relationships. I refuse to go to work feeling suspicious and being worried about sharing information. I refuse to go to work watching my back. Why should I have to watch what I say at work? Why shouldn't I be able to fully trust that a co-worker would be honest enough to give appreciation where it is due or to openly share their plans, hopes and yes, even their failures, rather than having them hide information, sweep things under the rug or making my work progress more difficult through their planned incompetence?

I gather that most people (except for psychopaths) who are difficult to work with, are primarily insecure people. Their insecurities more or less explain why they are either unsupportive, self-absorbed, pushy, competitive, covert etc... Insecurity is a trait I do not expect in a manager yet it seems as though many managers are highly insecure and make life hell for their teams.

The Competent, Self-Assured Manager

Aside from personality disorders, insecurities are at the root of many problems in personal relationships. Why should they not be the main culprits in work relationships? I personally think they are.

As I told my sister the other week: when shopping for a job, if we want to avoid nasty experiences with bosses, we should look for a competent, self-assured leader. I am sure they exist as I knew a couple of them in the past. I personally want to look for a manager or leader that I can trust.

A competent manager is more likely to be a joy to work with since they will not hinder your progress.

A competent manager is less likely to be threatened by your own competency.

They will not hide work related information from you since they do not see you as a threat.

They are more likely to be encouraging since they are not themselves insecure.

They are more likely to raise issues in the open and provide regular feedback.

They are more likely to admit their failures since they do not feel themselves diminished by mistakes.

They are not invested in making you or other people doubt themselves since it does not serve a purpose; quite the opposite, their lack of insecurity imbues them with confidence and they spread this confidence into other people.

Perhaps rather than teaching only about financial planning or marketing strategy, MBAs should encourage future managers to develop some inner strength, a degree of wisdom and to deal better with their insecurities.

I am sure many managers, especially those who are extroverted or involved in sales work, will rigidly assert that they-already-have-plenty-of-self-assurance- thank-you-very-much. But there is a large difference between feigned self-assurance and real self-assurance.

Real self-assurance is not petty, jealous, covert or negative towards others. Real self-assurance is continually grateful for others and for their help and it is not cocky about asking for help.

Real self-assurance does not pretend to know the answers but instead, is quite happy asking the questions.

Real self-assurance admits to doing wrong rather than attributing other people's feedback to having a "poor attitude".

Real self-assurance is not seeing oneself as being above others. It does not resort to so called, 'excellent knowledge of human nature' or 'psychological skills', to manipulate others....no, on the contrary: that would be called psychopathy, it is a complete absence of empathy and misuse of interpersonal skills to deceive.