Roadblock To Nirvana

Self No Comments

Imagine that you have made a commitment to always remind yourself that reality is an illusion. That the floor you stand on, the air flowing into your lungs, your body, and the people and places around you are all illusions. That everything and everyone is not real. Whenever you remember to, you make this reminder to yourself. When washing dishes or stopped at a light in your car. Several times a day. For a year.

Brainwashing Myself

043GirlOnBeachThat’s what I did. I consciously brainwashed myself for a whole year. Good idea? I’m not so sure. I experienced many wonderful benefits but encountered one major downside.

Believing that reality is an illusion does have a basis in science. It does not need to be a fanciful flight of the imagination. At the basic quantum level, everything can be regarded as probabilities. In this instance of time, the probability collapses that a quark exists at this position in space. Other probabilities collapse into other quarks at the same position in space to create a neutron. And other probabilities collapse into positrons, neutrons, and electrons to make an atom. And this atom, in combination with other atoms, forms a living cell and with other cells, forms your body. All these gazillion probabilities collapse into you, a thinking being, at this exact moment. And they collapse into you again in the next moment and the next. It’s a miracle that we don’t fly apart, scattered across the universe, blinking into and out of existence.

Expand that miracle to include each of the billions of humans, the Earth we inhabit, and the universe around us. It is awe inspiring. As I convinced myself more and more that all was illusion, I grew more amazed at reality. When I’m hiking, I have to stop and let the marvel of nature wash over me. What possibilities exist for there to be this majestic valley and mountain before me? Sometimes, I spend minutes looking at my hands, wondering at its existence and at the fact that I can move it with my thoughts. Amazement soon moves into gratitude for my existence and the endless wonders that surround me.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ― Albert Einstein

Note that I’m not in the state of amazement and gratitude continuously, all the time. This mindfulness infrequently comes and goes. Similar to how I have to continually remind myself to remember that reality is illusion, I have to remind myself to be amazed and grateful. I think this infrequency is a very good thing. Because humans adapt, I’m sure that after a while of being continually in such an “enlightened” state, it would start to be dull and average.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

The goal I was shooting for with this mind experiment was to attain better detachment from worldly concerns. And I believe the experiment succeeded. What does detachment sound like? The phrase “don’t sweat the small stuff… and it’s all small stuff” (from a book title) comes to mind. Small stuff like almost hitting a car that cuts suddenly into your lane on the freeway, or having to wait at the checkout line because someone ahead of you has an issue. Because all is illusion, why should I be attached to events and their outcomes? Everything is as it should be. The near collision wasn’t a collision. I am here, waiting in this line, because I am supposed to be here. And I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing. No decision can be wrong if everything is an illusion, including the decision itself.

Detachment is great. Most of the time, I’m not stressing out about what goes on, wondering if I’m making the right choice, or worrying about the future. I am just calm, relaxed. Now, I still do things that I have to do, such as paying the bills and being productive at work, to avoid the possibility of externally-induced stress, such as getting evicted or not having enough money for food. There is only so far you can go before reality takes a bite. I’m sure that a truly detached being wouldn’t care about what happens to his body, but I’m still concerned about not experiencing bad things like pain and starvation.

Other than the survival stuff, I expect things to work out. If they do, great. If they don’t, that’s okay. Surprisingly, most of the time, things work out for the best; if not immediately, then in the near future. Sometimes I think it’s the worse, but then a twist occurs and it’s actually for the best. My previous car, a Jetta, developed a weird crayon smell in hot weather caused by the decay of the sound absorption material Volkswagen used. I was a bit vexed because the issue was a manufacturer defect but the car was out of warranty. I decided to live with it. Months later, my sister upgraded and offered to give me her Civic. I sold the Jetta and ended up with a car which was more reliable, used cheaper gasoline (regular, not premium), and was less expensive to maintain. Because I try not to expect good results, I’m pleasantly surprised when things just work out for the better. The universe (or if you prefer, God) knows what it’s doing.

Do Sweat The Big Stuff

The good thing about detachment is that I’m floating along in life, without stress. The bad thing about detachment is that I’m floating along in life, without stress. I’ve realized that self-induced stress is necessary to push me beyond my comfort level, to take action, and to force me to grow. Without stress, I feel like I’m at a dead-end. I’m no longer clawing my way up the corporate ladder. I’m not pushing myself to arrange get-togethers and activities with friends. I’m not under a time crunch to do things, professionally or personally. I get what needs to be done done, but I don’t push myself to go the extra mile. Sometimes I miss being busy, having to sweat about juggling family, friends, work, personal life, and their related dramas. I miss feeling like I’m accomplishing a lot.

“Creativity requires action, and part of that action must be physical. It is one of the pitfalls of Westerners adopting Eastern meditation techniques to bliss out and render ourselves high but dysfunctional. We lose our grounding and, with it, our capacity to act in the world. In the pursuit of higher consciousness, we render ourselves unconscious in a new way. Exercise combats this spiritually induced dysfunction.” – Julia Camera, The Artist’s Way

When I know that my accomplishments have no meaning, it takes a lot of wind from feeling triumphant. There is a lack of motivation and a lot of passivity. I’m not driving. The universe directs my life… I’m just waiting for it to send experiences my way. The ride is very pleasant but I’m not going anywhere. I’ve gone too far to the other end and am falling down a puddle without end. As with anything in life, when you reach a roadblock or dead-end, it’s time to look for a detour.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff… and everything is small stuff” is right and wrong. While learning to not sweat the small stuff, I should have kept sweating the big stuff. The big stuff is not everything, it’s just the important thing. And it is right that I should be sweating the big stuff in my life. Sharing experiences with family, friends, and coworkers. Figuring out what is important and meaningful to do with my life. Having compassion for my fellow humans in their misfortunes and sharing the joy in their triumphs. Putting myself out into the world, making mistakes, getting bruised, meeting cool people, and learning and doing crazy, interesting things. Trying to be a better person than I was yesterday. And, though I hate to say it, forcing myself to eat healthy and exercise. Those are the big stuff that matters.

Good Vs Bad Procrastinators

I admit that it is an awful amount of big stuff to sweat, especially for a procrastinator such as myself. As with anything in life, procrastination is good and bad, depending upon how you handle it. Being a “good” procrastinator, I push myself to be creative about eliminating unnecessary work and doing the remainder in a way that requires much less effort and time. As a software engineer, I would spend my time to write a program to do repetitive work, instead of doing the repetitive work myself, especially if I know it is recurring work. And I write how-to instructions in detail, in my technical blog and in a wiki at work, because it saves me a ton of time when I can quickly refer people asking for help to an article and when I need to remind myself how to do something. (You probably have experiences with coworkers who ask you a question that you take the time to answer and a few days later, they ask you the same question again. I just point them at the wiki repeatedly until they understand that I won’t humor them and they go off to find another “victim”.)

Sometimes, if I feel a task is not important, waiting until near the deadline to do it can save me time when I find out the that task is no longer necessary. The downside is that if I’m wrong, I may have to work extra hard to meet the deadline; but that is the acceptable risk and most of the time, I come out ahead. Good procrastinators are careful gamblers who figure out the odds that something needs to be done. Bad procrastinators are bad gamblers who bet their energy on things that don’t need to be done, ignoring the important work.

A Simple Plan For The Rest Of My Life

Back to the main topic, I believe I have found a simple 2 step plan to making progress on the big stuff. I created this plan by merging ideas from two books, “The Now Habit at Work” by Neil Fiore and “Why People Fail” by Simon Reynolds. This plan will work for procrastinators, and if it works for procrastinators, it should work for everyone else.

Here is the simple 2 step plan for sweating the big stuff:

  1. Commit to start creating for 15 minutes each day or whatever is most attainable. (For the truly bad procrastinators, 5 minutes might be a better starting point.)
  2. Increase the time as you feel comfortable to.

Why the weird “start creating” phrase? Let’s address the latter part first, as it is the most important. I believe that the purpose of life for all humans is to create. We express our most pure nature when we do something creative, like drawing a picture, writing a blog, inventing a new skateboard trick, building furniture out of discards, combining flavors into a new dish, and testing a new prank on a friend. When we create, we are pushing our limits to bring something new into existence. It reminds me of the phrase, “man is created in the image of God”. To me, that phrase means that when we are creating, we are closest to God.

When I look closer at my big stuff, I find that the biggest, most challenging stuff has to do with creation. Creating enriching moments with my family, friends, and coworkers. Trying to find my life’s purpose can more accurately be stated as creating my life’s purpose. Creating a better life for myself and my fellow beings. Creating a new, better version of myself each day. If I keep my focus on the big stuff and commit to creating each day, my creations will naturally become the big stuff. I sweat the big stuff by creating it.

Self Help For The Procrastinator

The “start creating” phrase and “15 minutes” time limit are for procrastinators or people who lead very busy lives. I synthesized this approach from two ideas about overcoming procrastination, getting started from the “The Now Habit at Work” and limiting time commitment from “Why People Fail”. I hesitate to take on tasks because I don’t want to commit to spending my time and effort to complete them. The bigger the task and the greater the effort required, the more I hesitate. However, if I think that a task is short (just 15 minutes or even 5 minutes) and the effort is small (I’m committing to starting the task, not finishing it), I don’t mind taking it on. Once I get started, I usually go for longer than 15 minutes and sometimes a couple of hours later, I will complete the creation. (This method is how I usually complete postings for this blog.)

It’s a mind trick I play on myself. The goal is to do something (anything) creative every day and the secondary goal is to establish a daily habit of creation. Once I have the habit, I won’t need the trick as much. Or if the habit never develops (usually true for a procrastinator), I may just have to live with the trick. I can still “start” the same thing today that I’ve started the past 20 days or that I’ve started a year ago. Off and on, I’ve “started” this blog post more than two dozen times already.

Before I end this posting, I want to talk about learning. Sometimes I confused learning with creating. When I’m surfing the Internet and learning new things, could that be considered part of my commitment to doing something creative each day? The answer is yes and no. There is a gray area between creating and learning. I believe that learning may be required to meet the goal of creating, but it should never be the goal itself. For example, how can I invent a new skateboard trick if I don’t know how to skate and can’t perform any of the existing tricks? How can I create a video game if I don’t learn how to program first? So if you are learning in order to surpass that learning and create, then yes, it meets your commitment to start creating each day. If you are learning just to learn, then no, it does not meet the commitment to create.

Start Creating Every Day

Aya_KitouIf we are made in the image of God, then his greatest gift to us is creation in its many splendors. Are we not then made to create? By creating, do we not express our truest nature and offer thanks and gratitude to God?

I wanted to end with a story about Aya Kitou. She was a young woman, a teenager who was stricken with a disease, Spinocerebellar Ataxia, which took her mobility and ultimately her life. Yet, she never gave up on living, on growing, on creating her future, however imperfect and dark it became. From her diary, a quote (translated from Japanese) stands out: “So fall down, get up, and smile because you are alive and experiencing this wonderful gift of life.”

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Judging vs Perceiving Dominant Types

Personality No Comments

In a previous post, MBTI: Not Misleading, Just Misunderstood, I mentioned judging and perceiving dominant functions. I was talking to a friend and believe that I have stumbled upon a good way to differentiate between the two. Consider judging and perceiving in terms of communication.

smurf-devilvsangelJudging dominant types are almost always judging what they hear and what they say, but their judgments are works in progress. Such types will give clues, verbal and nonverbal, as to the degree of certainty in what they are saying. They would say something like “In most cases, I think that this is true.” And the progression over time is that the judgments will grow from less certain to very sure. Eventually, they will say, “This is true.” Some things are not judged, some start with no previous judgments, and others have strong judgment immediately (the result of similar decisions in the past). As judgers examine and re-examine, they re-judge until they reach a point where they are strongly certain.

Conversely, perceiving dominant types do not immediately judge unless they have made similar decisions in the past. Without prior judgments, they wait until the very end to decide. Unfortunately, they (especially dominant perceivers with thinking secondary) usually do not give any clue (verbal or nonverbal) as to the level of certainty of their statements, mainly because they have not decided anything as of yet. They would say, “This is false”, and say it with no, little, some, or total certainty; a listener can’t be sure which. Perceivers wish to explore all the possibilities first before deciding on one. What they state may not be certain at all because no judgment may be attached.

The two different styles result in conflict when they communicate with each other. Judging dominants are continuously judging and communicating their level of certainty. Early on or midway through the discussion, they may say “I believe this is so but I may be wrong”. Perceiving dominants instead will state “This is so” without indicating any level of certainty.

Each type believes they are communicating with their own type. Unfortunately, this is may not be the case. A judging dominant would believe that a perceiving dominant is very certain (because there is no verbal qualifier to the statement made) and attempt to figure out why the perceiver believes his statement to be true. A judger would then ask questions and come up with exception cases. The perceiver, who is “just throwing it out there”, is wondering why the judger is questioning him about what he said and attempting to close off possibilities prematurely. The perceiver first responds by trying to answer the judger’s questions, quickly gets annoyed when the questions persist, and start throwing out other statements or possibilities in reply to the exception cases. The judger gets vexed because he views the perceiver as not willing to explain why, making tangential statements that may conflict with each other, and changing judgments randomly. The end result is a communication breakdown and irritation with each other.

The above situation is made worse if any of the two types do not possess high emotional maturity and strong self-esteem. A perceiving dominant would feel under attack by the judging dominant. The perceiver would wonder why the judger is questioning him. A judging dominant would feel that the perceiver is not being serious, being disrespectful and making fun of him. Negative emotions are mixed into the irritation cycle and can build up to eruptions in anger with each other.

Perhaps a better understanding can be arrived at when we consider how each type brainstorms. When brainstorming, judging dominants will make continual judgments that they refine using exception cases. Judgers will examine the feasibility of a possibility before moving on the next one; judgers explore depth first. Perceiving dominants wish to explore all the possibilites before determining any possiblities’ feasibility; perceivers explore breadth first. Seeking refinement, judgers will look for exceptions to what is suggested by a perceiver. The perceiver may feel that is too premature to close off the possibility by questioning. Because statements made by perceivers are viewed as very certain, judgers may feel that it is too premature to make such judgments so soon. Brainstorming becomes an unpleasant experience for both types.

To make my point, I have painted the two types in their extremes. Both types make judgments. For judging dominants, the judgment is spread over the whole process. For perceiving dominants, the judgment is compressed to the end. Unfortunately, a non-judgmental statement said by a perceiving dominant sounds like a definitive statement to a judging dominant. A definitive statement said by a judging dominant sounds like a non-definitive statement to a perceiving dominant. These misunderstandings lead to a communication cycle which will frustrate both types.

The cycle can only be broken if at least one of the types do not assume that they are talking to their own type and make the effort to determine the type they are speaking to. Judging dominant types should not ascribe certainty of judgment to statements made without qualifiers by perceiving dominant types. Absent any expression of degree of certainty, the judger should ask directly whether what was stated is a definitive judgment. Perceiving dominant types should ask if there is any certainty to another’s statement, instead of assuming none, and if possible, provide verbal indicators as to the certainty of their own statements.

When you find yourself getting irritated in a discussion, stop and ask yourself whether your conversation partner is of a different type. Adjust accordingly and with patience, you will communicate and feel better and so will the other person.

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Real Insurance Is Better than AppleCare

Money No Comments

Recently, my brother-in-law decided to buy a 13 inch Apple Macbook Pro with Retina. He asked me if the AppleCare Protection plan, which costs $249 extra, was worth it. I told him no. For the same amount of money or less, one could get a better protection plan than AppleCare.

broken-mask-robotThe AppleCare Protection plan is a 3 year extended warranty plan. It only covers malfunctioning parts. It does not cover accidental damage, loss, or theft. If you drop the Macbook and the display cracks or the laptop stops working, you are out of luck because AppleCare does not cover that. You will need to pay the full repair price, which could be $1000 or more to replace a retina display. If you spill water on the keyboard and your Macbook shorts out, that’s too bad. If you lose the Macbook or someone steals it from the safety of your house, oh well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. AppleCare does not cover any of that.

What does AppleCare cover? Well, if your keyboard or display malfunctions through no fault of yours, then Apple will repair or replace that component. The Genius Bar members at your local Apple Store will check the Macbook for damage, such as large dents, that could cause the malfunction. If they find such damage, they can refuse the repair; if you are very lucky, you will get someone nice enough to allow the free repair. Be aware that Apple has put moisture detectors inside the Macbook so that if you spill water on it, the Genius Bar will know and can refuse the repair even if you have AppleCare Protection.

There is a reason why extended warranties are pushed so often by retailers. They make a lot of money off of them. Usually if a product such as a laptop were to fail, it would most likely fail during the first year when the product is still under the standard one year warranty. So if the customer pays for an extra year or two of warranty, that is considered an almost guaranteed 100% profit for the retailer. Not to say that there isn’t any case where a day or two after the one year warranty expired, the product failed and the owner was glad to have paid for extended warranty. That case is the exception though. The odds suggest not buying an extended warranty.

When most people buy AppleCare, I think they believe that they are buying insurance. They aren’t. Insurance could cover repair or replacement due to accidental damage, loss, or theft. AppleCare is not insurance. For the same amount of money, they could get real insurance that provides greater peace of mind.

First, before we talk insurance, make sure that you buy that expensive Macbook with an American Express credit card. (If you don’t have an American Express card, get one. There are basic American Express cards with no annual fee that provide the two benefits below.) Purchasing an item with an American Express card provides the following two benefits for free:

  • Purchase Protection: your purchase is protected for up to 90 days from the date of purchase from accidental damage or theft. You will be reimbursed up to $1000. (If you have an American Express Platinum card or similar, you get protection from loss also and up to $10,000.)
  • Extended Warranty: doubles the warranty on your purchase up to an additional year. For an extra year after the original warranty expires, if the purchase malfunctions through no fault of yours, you will be reimbursed the original cost (up to $10,000).

Purchasing the Macbook with an American Express credit card will add one additional year of extended warranty on top of the standard Apple one year warranty for free. It is a no brainer to do so. American Express service is very friendly. For example, the Wifi feature on my sister’s iPhone 4s broke (due to an Apple hardware defect) after she upgraded to iOS 7. Because it was past the one year warranty, Apple wanted $200 to replace the iPhone. I told my sister to call American Express to see if she was eligible for the free extended warranty. She was. They asked her to send them the receipt and then gave her a credit for the original cost of the iPhone. How cool is that?

Second, before buying insurance for your Macbook, check that you don’t already have it. You may have a rider on your house or rental insurance that covers your personal property such as electronics. Check to see what is covered. For example, my renter’s insurance covers theft and loss of personal property due to fire (burst pipes, etc.). Unfortunately, accidental damage is not covered. In the case of theft or loss, my rental insurance company will reimbursed me for the deprecated cost or if I purchase a replacement, they will cover the original cost. (This is nowhere as nice as American Express’ full credit of the original cost without requiring you to buy a replacement.)

If you don’t have a rider for personal property like electronics, you may want to ask your home insurance company about one. It may be the cheapest option because a rider is considered part of the bundle and you may get a better deal that way. Homeowners on forums provided some examples such as $40/year for $2000 coverage (much less than AppleCare) or $80/year for $5000 coverage for malfunctions, accidental damage, loss, and theft. The insurance cost seems to vary widely (one homeowner mentioned $15/year, another $30/year for $4000 coverage, and a third mentioned a deductible of $50).

Instead of a rider, you can purchase personal property insurance directly. Most likely, standalone insurance will be more expensive than a rider. The most recommended standalone insurance for a Macbook is an Inland Marine Insurance policy (can be gotten from several insurance companies like AllState, State Farm, and Farmers Insurance). Though originally created to cover expensive electronics on boats, the policy applies for land usage also. In a forum post (Best Insurance on Earth for your MacBook / Air etc. Far better than AppleCare), one person mentioned that it costs about $32/year for $1500 coverage of multiple devices with no deductible. (It was mentioned also that the Inland Marine Insurance policy did not cover phones.)

Another insurance mentioned was State Farm’s Personal Articles Policy, which costs $60/year for $3000 coverage. There are also insurance companies, like Safeware, that sell policies specific to high-end equipment and electronics. As with all other types of insurances, make sure to shop around to get the best deal.

When talking about insurance for electronics, Square Trade is a name that often comes up. Square Trade costs about the same as AppleCare; but in addition to the extended warranty, Square Trade covers accidental damage. Because Square Trade does not cover loss or theft, I believe that it is not the best deal. Square Trade is better than AppleCare but you can get better insurance than both for less.

Insurance is personal. I do not purchase extra insurance, such as extended warranties. (I do use an American Express card to take advantage of the free extra year of warranty though.) I am gambling that I’ll be careful enough not to break my Macbook, lose it, or be robbed. Considering all the money I have saved from not buying extra insurance or extended warranties on my many laptops, even if I have to pay full price to replace a Macbook, I will break even or come out ahead. However, if you feel more comfortable having some protection (nothing wrong with that), please consider the alternative options above to AppleCare. You will get much more bang for your buck.

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Send Me Money, Sucker!

Money No Comments

Recently, I got an email from a family member which reads as follow:

From: XXXX@yahoo.com
Subject: Urgent!

Hi,

I'm out of town suffering a terrible incident, I need your urgent favor,
Please email me back as soon as possible.

Thanks.

XXXX
(XXX) XXX-XXXX

The displayed email address looks correct as XXXX@yahoo.com, but when I check the headers, the reply-to address is XXXX@outlook.com. And the phone number has the wrong area code.

I recognized it as the money gram scam. Basically, if you reply to that email, you will receive a request to send money by Western Union (or a similar money transfer service), where it is easy for anyone to go and pick up the cash. (If you call the number, you will probably get voicemail.) The way this scam works is to hack into someone’s email account, send this same message to everyone in the address book, and hope that one or two people will fall for it and send money.

ScroogeMcDuckI sent a warning to my family and wasn’t surprised to find that most did not recognize this email as a scam. They were confused or thought it was a joke. The family member, whose email account was hacked, disclosed that several friends and acquaintances were calling to ask why he needed $930. This tells me that a lot of folks are not knowledgeable about Internet scams. I want to talk about scams, Internet and otherwise, and the one method that I use to fight them.

In the past, this and other frauds were perpetrated by isolated con artists. Nowadays, I believe that most of the scams on the Internet are perpetrated by criminal organizations. If I was a mafia boss, I would definitely have an Internet racket because face it, you can make a ton of money (from the hundreds of millions of victims) with very little risk of getting caught or punished, especially if you are located in another country.

So, there are groups of hundreds of criminals, backed by the best servers that dirty money can buy, running scams across the Internet (and elsewhere). They are working full-time to steal money from you and the companies you do business with. If they are truly International, they may be working full time across multiple time zones, while you are sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom, and watching TV.

You may throw up your hands in defeat at this point. And to be truthful, I agree. There is no way you can beat everything that an organization like that can throw at you. The best you can aspire to be is a potential victim that would take too much effort to defraud. Sad to say, your goal is to be less naive than the masses. Or more simply, the criminals will go for the lowest-hanging fruit and your job is to avoid being the lowest-hanging fruit.

The most powerful tool that we victims have in our arsenal is to “trust but verify” or more accurately, verify before trusting. This applies to almost everything in life. To illustrate, one of my friends did fall for the money gram scam above a couple years ago. After sending the money, she had some doubts so she called the friend up and the friend replied, “What? I’m not in XXXX country, robbed of everything, and in need of money!” My question is: Why didn’t she call up the friend or the friend’s family first before sending money? If she had verified first, the friend or the friend’s family would have told her that the email was a fake.

Email Links: Bad Idea

Avoid clicking on any links in an email, especially an email from your bank. Definitely, do not login if the link takes you to a login page where you are prompted to input your username and password. Instead, open up a browser and manually type in the address of your bank or whatever.

If you’re lucky, clicking on links indiscriminately may get your computer infected with a virus or spyware which will just slow down your computer. If you’re unlucky, a virus will erase your hard drive or a spyware will record what you type, like passwords, and transmit the data to someone who doesn’t have your best interest in mind. Worst, if you click on a link to your bank account and input your username and password, you may have just given access to your bank account to a criminal.

The last is referred to as phishing (pronounced like “fishing” because they are “phishing” for your money) which involves pretending to be a trustworthy entity in order to acquire sensitive information. Basically, someone nefarious creates a website which looks exactly like your bank’s login page. They send you a fake email from your bank with a link. When you click on the link, you are taken to the fake login page. After you input your banking username and password, they could then forward you to the real bank or just throw an error that maintenance is in progress. In the meantime, they have your username and password to access your bank account with.

Phishing may be used to gain access to accounts belonging to other companies than your bank, like investment firms, credit card companies, loan application processors, mortgage payment companies, etc. I believe that all legitimate businesses should make it a policy to not include any links in their official emails; instead, they should ask their users to manually browse to their company websites.

Note: If you receive a complicated link in an email, perhaps pointing to a specific Google or Yahoo photo album, which requires a login and you can’t figure out how to manually browse to it, here’s what you can do:

  1. Browse to the company address by manually typing it in, and log into your account.
  2. Go back to the email and click on the link.

If the link is legitimate, the system will recognize that you are already logged in and bypass the login screen. You would then go directly to that page; that is, the photo album. Doing the above will help you to avoid being tricked by a phishing website.

Phone Calls: Just Hang Up

Similar to the above, if you get a phone call from your bank and are asked to verify your identity, ask what the call is about, say bye-bye, and call your bank’s official phone number (listed on the back of your ATM card, their website, or in the phone book). Calling them directly is the equivalent of manually browsing to the company website. If the “bank” calls you and you provide your verification info (mother’s maiden name, social security, etc.), you may have just given your identity away to thieves, who could then gain access to your accounts or more likely, open a new credit card or loan in your name.

Knowing the above, the perpetrators will attempt to override your caution. A year ago, I got a phone call from my credit card company. They told me that they believed my credit card number had been stolen because they were seeing charges for flowers amounting to over a thousand dollars in Florida. They asked me to verify my identity so they can confirm that the charges were fraudulent. Of course, I answered every question they asked. Afterwards, I realized with horror that I might have just given the keys to my identity away to someone who “called” me on the phone. Thankfully it was a legitimate call, but it could have easily been a trick. What I should have done was ask them what the call was about, hang up, and call the credit card company back directly.

Phishing: Old as the Pharaohs

Phishing isn’t something new on the Internet; it has been around for a long time. I’m sure it has been around since mankind first discovered how to cheat and steal. I think all effective scams involve the use of phishing (again, pretending to be a trustworthy entity) because no one hands their money to some entity they don’t trust.

For example, suppose that you are on a business trip. You arrive late at the hotel. You’re hungry but too tired to go out. Conveniently, there is a flyer for pizza delivery that someone slipped under the hotel room’s door. You dial up the pizza place, make an order, and pay with your credit card. An hour later, the pizza hasn’t arrived yet. You call back and get some lame excuse like the oven has exploded, sorry, but there won’t be pizza for anyone. Or maybe no one picks up. Congratulations, you’ve just had your credit card number stolen.

Remember what P.T. Barnum supposedly said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Try not to be that sucker. But if you fall for a scam (which I must embarrassingly admit to once or twice), forgive yourself. You are only human. Just repeat to yourself, “There’s a human born every minute.” (To be exact, there’s a human born every 8 seconds.)

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MBTI: Not Misleading, Just Misunderstood

Personality No Comments

In my previous post, I indicated that the MBTI personality types were misleading and that Carl Jung’s cognitive functions were the solution. After reading “Gifts Differing” by Isabel Briggs Myers, who created the MBTI instrument with her mother Katherine Cook Briggs, I realized that I had misunderstood. The cognitive functions theory that I learned is based upon Dr. Carl Jung’s book, “Psychological Types”, but includes enhancements and clarifications from Mrs. Myers and Mrs. Briggs. The MBTI instrument is the result of making Carl Jung’s cognitive functions theory relevant to and easy to understand by the average person. Isabel Briggs Myers and Katherine Cook Briggs built upon Carl Jung’s cognitive functions theory with two major contributions.

Crouching Extravert, Hidden Introvert

042GirlPetDragonFirst, for the average person, the dominant and auxiliary (secondary) cognitive functions must work together to balance each other out. Dr. Carl Jung concentrated on unbalanced personalities (especially introverts) where the dominant function was supreme and was not in balance with the auxiliary. He did not explore balanced types and only mentioned the auxiliary function in a few references without great detail. Myers and Briggs fleshed out the role of the auxiliary function.

To be balanced, if the dominant function is a judging function (Thinking or Feeling), then the auxiliary must be a perceiving function (Sensing or iNtuition) and vice versa. If the dominant function is extraverted, then the auxiliary must be introverted and vice versa. In effect, the auxiliary function is opposite to and balances the dominant function between judging and perceiving and between extroversion and introversion.

Second, the most visible personality trait seen by the outside world is the first extraverted function, which is used to interact with the exterior world. For extraverts, this is the dominant function. For introverts, this is the auxiliary function (because the dominant is introverted). Thus, introverts have a dominant function which is hidden, and people interact mainly with the introvert’s auxiliary function. This leads to confusion because someone who is viewed as perceiving by others may be an introverted judging dominant type. Likewise, someone who appears very judging to others may be an introverted perceiving dominant type.

When thinking of balanced types, each type has an inward-facing and an outward facing function, which could be any of the four perceiving and judging functions. For example, an INFP has an inward-facing introverted dominant Feeling function and an outward-facing extraverted auxiliary iNtuiton function. An ESTJ has an outward-facing extraverted dominant Thinking function and an inward-facing introverted auxiliary Sensing function. When one interacts with the INFP, one sees visible indications of the outward-facing iNtuition function (auxiliary) in how the INFP gets along with everyone. When one interacts with the ESTJ, one sees visible indications of the outward-facing Thinking function (dominant) in how the ESTJ takes time to think and talk through decisions.

Note: One can see how the MBTI instrument and cognitive functions are tied together by how the MBTI can be mapped to the cognitive functions. As we explored in the previous post, the cognitive functions theory does not treat the first E/I (Extroversion/Introversion) and last J/P (Judging/Perceiving) MBTI preferences as standalone functions. Instead, the E/I preference indicates the attitude (E/I orientation) of the dominant function and thus, the attitudes of the remaining functions. The J/P preference indicates the extraverted perceiving or judging function used to deal with the external world. For dominant extraverts (E), this is the dominant function. For dominant introverts (I), this is the auxiliary function.

When identifying personality types, the goal is to determine the dominant function. Unfortunately, this is difficult when dealing with introverts. The most visible function is outward-facing and can be dominant (for extraverted dominant types) or auxiliary (for introverted dominant types). For example, an ISTP has a visible external-facing Sensing function which is the ISTP’s auxiliary function. But for an ESTP which also has a visible external-facing Sensing function, it is the ESTP’s dominant function. To determine which is which, one must either spend a lot of time with the person or much faster, one could just ask the person questions to learn what their dominant function is. This is why the MBTI creators describe the instrument as a self-reporting tool.

What Type Am I Again?

Update: I may sound certain that I am an ENFP below, but I am not 100% sure. I am continually swinging between INFP and ENFP. When I wrote this post, I believed I was more on the ENFP side. In this update, I believe I am more INFP. Unfortunately, ambivalence may come with the MBTI territory.

Even as a self-reporting tool, it may be difficult for a person to accurately MBTI type himself. Case in point, I’ve recently realized that I am an ENFP, not an INFP. As I understood more about MBTI and cognitive functions, I’ve refined my type. (DaveSuperPowers has a video on this ENFP vs INFP confusion.) If we compare the cognitive functions for ENFP and INFP (see below), we see that the functions and attitudes are the same, but the order is different. For both types, I would use the same extraverted iNtuition function to interact with the external world, whether I was an extrovert or an introvert. Someone observing me would have a difficult time deciding which E/I type I was. Because ENFP is the most introverted of the extraverts, I had a hard time myself figuring out which side of the E/I divide I belonged to. When I’m alone, after a while, I want to be with people. When I’m with people, after a while, I want to be alone.

ENFPvsINFP

I think the view of the E/I preference as being how one gets energy is confusing. The theory is that an extravert would be energized by being with and interacting with people and an introvert would be energized by being alone. I don’t experience this at all. Instead, I believe that energy expenditure is a better indicator. Introverts are drained of their energy faster than normal when forced to interact with people (to extravert). An extreme introvert would reach energy exhaustion quickly. Likewise, extraverts are drained of their energy faster than normal when forced to be alone (to be introspective). In both cases, I believe that the introverts and extraverts are forced to use their auxiliary functions, which use up more energy than using their dominant functions would. Even as an extravert, when I’m with people who are boring and who don’t want to engage (in conversation or activity) with me, I do expend more energy to compensate and thus become exhausted faster.

Having said the above, there are scenarios where I feel that I’m not expending energy or even that I am gaining energy, but they are independent of the E/I preference. Zero energy expenditure can seem to occur when I am deeply concentrating on a task (I am in the flow) and hours pass without me getting tired. And I seem to gain energy when I am participating in an activity or interacting with people that I am very passionate about. I gain energy whether I’m doing an interesting solitary activity (Introversion) or partying with a bunch of closed friends (Extraversion).

The trick to identifying my type is what most books recommend to do, which is to recall how I was like when I was younger, preferably in high school and college. I believe that high school helps to solidify our dominant preferences which we then exhibit clearly in college. After college, when we join the workforce, we are forced to strengthen our auxiliary and lesser functions (even our shadow functions) to cope with work demands, coworkers, and bosses. As an ENFP, I have to thank my work experience for my strong ability to focus on the details (shadow Sensing function) and to bring projects to completion (shadow Judging function). With life experience and age, all our cognitive functions mature and we become very balanced. If I take an MBTI test and answer the questions based upon who I am now, the test would not provide a strong match to any particular MBTI type. I have to force myself to answer based upon who I was when I was young.

The second trick is to read self descriptions from other people by MBTI type to see which ones I most identify with. For this to work, the source of the self descriptions must be accurate. The source that I recommend is the book titled “The 16 Personality Types: Descriptions for Self-Discovery” by Linda V Berens. After reading the self descriptions for INFP and ENFP, I was surprised to find that I currently identified very strongly with ENFP and very weakly with INFP. To double-check, I recalled how I was in high school (where I was active in many clubs, often as an officer) and college (where I organized parties and dinners for other students and alumni). In the end, ENFP with its dominant extraverted iNtuition function seemed a more fitting match for me.

I feel that after a long journey, I have finally identified my MBTI type. However, at the same time, I realized that my MBTI type may no longer strongly identify the current me. My INTJ friend tells me that I am a disturbance to his system of identifying MBTI types because I behave in contradictory ways. I took that as a compliment and think that he truly enjoys trying to upgrade his system to account for my behavior. Dr. Carl Jung and Mrs. Isabel Briggs Myers briefly mentioned that eventually, with age and maturity, an individual may transcend their type. I don’t know what that would be like, but as an ENFP, I find it very intriguing. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Check out my continuing post on this topic, Judging vs Perceiving Dominant Types.

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I Can’t Scream Because My Jaws Are Wired Shut

Health 4 Comments

In April 2009, I had jaw surgery to correct an underbite (a type of malocclusion), which involved breaking both my jaws and moving them to new positions. It was my first major surgery and first overnight stay in a hospital as an adult. I ended up in the hospital for two nights. I thought I was prepared for the hospital, having researched what other jaw surgery patients went through and even talking to my friend, a nurse; but the reality was more horrific than the bad scenarios I had anticipated. Four years later, I feel comfortable enough to write about my experience. I wanted to share what happened and hopefully, to provide useful advice for those who might be facing an overnight hospital stay.

jaw_surgeryThe Good Samaritan Hospital is located in Los Gatos, California, an upscale community. The hospital costs were toward the high end so I assumed that the care provided would be excellent. I believed in the principle that you get what you pay for. In this case, it was the wrong assumption to make.

The Pain Scale

My nurse friend told me that the most important thing to know for a hospital stay after surgery is the pain scale. The pain scale is a subjective rating from 1 to 10 by the patient regarding the intensity of pain being felt. It serves as a means of communicating to the nurse how much and how soon pain medication is needed. He stressed that, at pain level 5 (still tolerable), I should be asking for pain medication because it may take up to 30 minutes before the medicine is provided. During that time, the pain level will rise to 6 or 7; at which point, the pain will be at the threshold of being bearable. His advice was spot on. Unfortunately, at this hospital, 30 minutes is extremely optimistic.

I noticed that the hospital hired a lot of nurse assistants, who served as first responders to a patient’s call. Unfortunately, most of them did not speak English well and worse, they did not seem to be trained because most didn’t know about the pain scale. After pushing the call button, I had to overcome these obstacles:

  1. Someone will ask over the telecom, “What do you want?” Because my jaw was wired shut, I couldn’t answer. I kept pushing the button. Sometimes, my roommate would shout, “He can’t speak!”
  2. Eventually, after 10 to 30 and sometimes up to 45 minutes, a nurse assistant is sent to check up on me.
  3. The nurse assistant would look at me cluelessly while I tried to pantomime the pain level with my fingers. I only recalled one nurse assistant who understood my hand signals about the pain level. The rest acted as if they had no concept of the pain system. Later on, after I managed to get a piece of paper and pen, most of them couldn’t understand because besides not speaking English well, they couldn’t read it either. I tried underscoring and circling the pain number vehemently but again, because most of them had no knowledge of the pain system, they couldn’t understand.
  4. Once the nurse assistant gave up and left for help (I hoped), or was scared off by my roommate who would shout, “He’s in pain!” Unfortunately, most of them couldn’t understand what he said either. In two instances, the same nurse assistant guy came, left, and basically ignored my requests, and I had to suffer to the next nurse assistant on duty for relief.
  5. After another 10 to 20 minutes, an English speaking nurse practitioner or a registered nurse would show up. The first words were “What do you want?” And because I could not respond, that phrase was repeated in a louder voice with more irritation. Eventually my roommate would come to the rescue and say, “He can’t talk!” Near the end, after having to intervene on my behavior for more than half a dozen times throughout the night, he asked, “God damn it, what the hell is going on?”
  6. After the nurse understood that I needed pain medicine, if she was nice, she would tell me that she needed to get the one nurse in the entire hospital that was able or allowed to give pain medicine (my educated guess). If she was not so nice, she would just leave without saying anything. This would entail waiting another 10-20 minutes (in the hopes that they understood my need) and in one case, a long one hour wait; toward the end of which time I was in total agony.
  7. Finally, a nurse would come and give me the pain medicine. She was invariably the nicest sounding nurse, but maybe that’s because she dispenses the narcotics directly into my bloodstream. Miserably, it takes about another 5-10 minutes before the pain relief occurs after the injection.

So, the 30 minutes delay is the most optimistic and the best wait time. The longest was almost one and a half hours. The average was around 45 minutes to 1 hour. Within an hour, my pain level has increased by one or two levels. Over an hour and I was writhing in pain. I now understand what it feels like when pain gets to the level that you basically live in and for pain. Your own consciousness wraps around pain and the pain consumes your very being. That’s all you can feel and all you can think about. It’s hell.

I never got my roommate’s name but I am so thankful that he was present and able to voice my frustration. I never got to apologize for being the cause of his sleep interruptions. My frustration was captured by the phrase which he kept repeating at the end and which I repeated in my mind, “God damn it, what the hell is going on?”

Well, What the Hell Was Going On?

52HomerScreamingWhy were there so many nurse assistants, why didn’t they at least speak English, and why did they seem so untrained? During the first night, I remember encountering six of them (if not more). Likewise, I would encounter the same number of nurses, never seeing the same one twice. Were their shifts so short? Why didn’t they leave a note for each other saying I couldn’t talk? Why did they treat me as if I was intruding and making inconvenience demands? Why is it that as a patient, besides fighting the pain, I needed to battle for my own care?

It wasn’t just the pain medicines. It also took a lot of effort to get the ice packs. I read that I needed to ice the first 24 hours to keep the swelling and inflammation down when the body is in overdrive to address the massive injury. Then later I can switch to a hot pack to encourage blood flow and faster healing once the body is settled down. Because of the communication barrier (I couldn’t talk and the nurse assistants couldn’t understand spoken or written English), it was a struggle to get ice packs. And when I did manage to successfully communicate my needs, I was given one or two small ice packs, totally inadequate, which I had to apply myself. I remember only one instance when a registered nurse got me the long, large ice packs and wrapped them around my jaw. Eventually, I gave up and stopped asking for ice… it took too much effort.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m blaming the nurse and nurse assistants. After thinking about it, I realized that the problem is systemic and the nurses represent just the tip of a dysfunctional iceberg. It starts with the governmental regulations that are meant to protect the patient but create bureaucracies in the hospitals as a side effect; the health insurance industry, high health costs, and mandatory emergency care for the uninsured that force hospitals to cut costs by hiring a larger proportion of cheap, unskilled nurse assistants; the prevalence of malpractice lawsuits that increase insurance costs and adds additional bureaucratic paperwork; and the cost cutting that results in understaffed, overworked and burned out nurses. If we include office politics, drama, and the natural progression towards mediocrity that can be expected to exist in any human organization, we end up with quite a tangled mess.

I talked to my friend, the nurse, and he confirmed that the problem is systemic to the hospital, the administration, the hospital workers (including the nurses), and the bureaucracy necessary to meet all the regulations and to defend against lawsuits. He agrees that this applies to the government and health insurance companies and goes further to say that society itself is part of the problem. Everything results in a dysfunctional organization that barely meets the cares of its patients with of course, an often conflicting focus on making a profit.

Nurses are understaffed and thus, end up overwhelmed with work. As an example, he states that in one hospital, he had to do a mandatory round of all patients every 15 minutes, while having to do physical checkups, paperwork, and ensuring that the medication schedules were being met (the types of medication and schedule were different for each patient). Imagine doing this for a dozen or more patients and then having to do admission for a new patient (or even two). Most days, he can only spare 5 minutes to consume his lunch.

Worse, the nurses who start out caring about the patients and working hard are often rewarded with more work until they burned out or leave. Once they burned out, they just don’t care as much and just try to get by. My friend is efficient and uses his skills to find ways to do things faster in order to handle the load. As a reward at a previous hospital, he was asked regularly to take care of triple the number of patients per shift as other nurses, with the same pay. Adding to his workload, patients were waiting for him to begin his shift so they could report issues and injuries because they didn’t like dealing with the other nurses. His coworkers told him, “Don’t work so hard. You’re making us look bad.” Eventually, he had to quit.

It’s Not a New Problem!

I thought that my health care experience was a recent phenomenon, but it isn’t. I read a book titled “On Death and Dying” by Elisabeth Kuler-Ross M.D., and in that book, there was a patient referred to as “Sister I” who experienced the same problems. She said that the nurses seemed insensitive to pain; their response time was 30-45 minutes; and the nurses were cold and did not want to engage or do their job. So she set about forcing the nurses to do their job. Below are some quotes from Sister I.

  • “I think someday if I ever started bleeding or going into shock it would be the cleaning lady that finds me, not the staff.”
  • “And part of my making rounds with the patients in the past years was really to find out how ill they were and then I would stand in front of that desk and say So-and-So needs something for her pain and just waited a half hour…”
  • “I thought it was typical of certain floors because the same group of nurses is on. It’s something in us, that we just don’t seem to respect pain anymore.”
  • “I think they are busy. I hope that’s what they are. But I have walked and seen them talking there and then see them go on breaks. And it makes me furious. When the nurse goes on a break and the aide comes back and tells you that the nurse is downstairs with the key [to the medicine cabinet] and you have to wait. When that person wanted to have her medication even before that nurse went down for her meal.”
  • ”And I think there should be somebody in charge of that floor that could come and give you the pain medicine, that you shouldn’t have to sweat through another half hour before anybody comes up. And sometimes it’s forty-five minutes before they come up. And they certainly aren’t going to take care of you first. They are going to answer the phone and look at the new hours, and new orders that the doctors left. They are not going to do this the first thing, find if somebody asked for pain medication.”

That book was published in 1969. I think that if one is dying from a disease, the pain felt must be orders of magnitude greater that what I experienced. I can’t even begin to imagine how unbearable it could be. It’s depressing and horrible to think that this has been going on since at least 1969, before I was even born yet.

Thank God I’m Healthy

Thank goodness that morphine makes me very sleepy. I was able to sleep through most of my stay at the hospital and I think that sleep spared me a lot of problems by reducing my need for pain medication (and the trials of trying to get the medicine).

After that nightmare experience, I am so grateful every day that I am in good health, and that my family and friends are also in good health. Nowadays, I try to exercise regularly and eat healthy (everything in moderation). I avoid taking crazy risks that might result in major physical injuries. I realize that I don’t fear death at much as I used to; I just fear debilitating and painful long-term injuries.

If I should ever be in a hospital again, hopefully I can think clearly and speak so I can be my own patient advocate. And if I can’t, I hope to have someone beside me who can take that role for me and battle the system for the care that I would need. Ultimately, in and out of hospitals, you are the only one responsible for your own care.

4 Comments

California E-File For Free

Money No Comments

I use TurboTax to do my federal and California state income taxes. When e-file first became available, I remember having to pay a “convenience” fee of $15 each (for a total of $30). It seemed strange to me that I had to pay to save the federal and state government money; they didn’t have to hire someone to input my printed tax forms after all. Thankfully, a few years ago, the IRS finally realized this and made federal e-file free. Unfortunately, the state e-file for TurboTax has always required a fee, which has increased to $19.99 this year.

CalFile

UncleSamMagooInitially I blamed California for the state e-file fee; but last year, I found that California did provide several options to e-file for free and that I qualified for CalFile. The $19.99 fee is actually imposed by Intuit as a service fee. CalFile is a web-based application that allows you to fill in and submit an online Schedule CA 540 state income tax form to the California Franchise Tax Board. Because I had the California 540 form completed in TurboTax, all I did was to copy the total amounts from TurboTax into the CalFile web forms (which referred to amounts on the state 540 and federal 1040 forms by line numbers).

CalFile is totally free and easy to use. If your taxes are simple and you make less than $169,000 if single (or higher amounts if head of household or married), you can use CalFile. Check the CalFile qualifications. This year, you are required to create an account to use CalFile; however, both the CalFile Deluxe and Basic account types are free. An account allows you to quit and continue your online 540 form at a later time.

If you are doing state income tax for another state than California, I suggest going to your state’s website to see if there are free e-file options available.

CA SDI vs. VPDI

While we are on the subject of income taxes, when doing an itemized federal income tax return, you are allowed to deduct mandatory state fees in addition to the state income tax. Such a mandatory state fee is the California State Disability Insurance, which appears on the W2 form as “CA SDI”. If you work in California, this state-administered disability insurance premium is automatically deducted from your paycheck and totals to around $1000 a year. On the federal income tax return, this mandatory fee is considered a state tax and thus is deductible.

Until a couple years ago, TurboTax did not deduct the CA SDI in my itemized federal 1040 form, even when I explicitly inputted it as part of the W2 form. I had to manually work around TurboTax’s limitation by changing the deduction amount in the 1040 Schedule A form (line 5, “State and local Income taxes”). The latest version of TurboTax will recognize the CA SDI input on the W2 form, tag it as a “CA SDI” type, and deduct it properly on the Schedule A form.

In California, as an alternative to CA SDI, employers have the option to administer their own disability insurance plans, which must provide equivalent benefits as the CA SDI plan does. This is called the California Voluntary Plan Disability Insurance, which appears on your W2 as “CA VPDI” or CAVPDI. Because the costs of the plan, including administration and any employee subsidies, are considered a deductible business expense, some companies may decide to go with a CA VPDI after running the numbers and finding out that they could get a net gain.

When the CA VPDI first appeared, it was unclear as to whether or not an employee can deduct the CA VPDI on the federal income tax return. It is a mandatory fee indirectly mandated by the state after all. And from what I heard, the IRS did not correct the forms submitted by those who treated the CA VPDI the same as a deductible CA SDI. Unfortunately, the IRS eventually decided that the CA VPDI was not deductible by employees in the IRS Rev. Rul 81-194 ruling, which stated:

“Amounts withheld from wages of employees for contributions to voluntary plans are nondeductible personal expenses under section 262 and are not deductible as taxes, business expenses, or medical expenses.”

This IRS ruling is not a big surprise. This decision resulted in more tax revenue for the federal government, so it was actually a no-brainer decision. California followed suit by issuing an update to the Schedule CA 540 instructions to omit wording which suggested that the CA VPDI was deductible on the federal income tax reform.

So, just remember that you can deduct CA SDI, but you can’t deduct CA VPDI. The latest version of TurboTax will recognize the CA VPDI on the W2 form as a “CA VPDI” type and won’t deduct it in the 1040 Schedule A form.

Just in case, don’t forget that you can deduct your car’s vehicle license fee, which is a part of the yearly DMV vehicle registration. The vehicle license fee amount can be found in the itemized costs on the DMV vehicle registration renewal form that you get each year. It is a mandatory state fee and can be deducted on your federal income tax return.

Free Tax Software

I suggest filing your income taxes late so that you can borrow the TurboTax software CD (preferably, the version that includes one free state) from your family or friends once they are done with it. This will save you the cost of purchasing TurboTax, which varies from $40 and up. Alternatively, the online version of TurboTax provides free federal filing, but requires an additional $27.99 for a state filing.

I believe that the above information still applies if you use other tax software, like TaxCut.

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Who Are We to Blindly Judge?

Self 1 Comment

When I was very young, in elementary school, there was a celebratory event with cookies and punch. I remember taking extra cookies. As I was wrapping them up in a napkin, I looked up to see my teacher, whom I liked and respected. She had a cold, frozen face on and I could see the blistering stare of disapproval that she was attempting to suppress. Shamed-face, I turned away.

045GirlCryingAs I think back, I realized that it was worse that she didn’t ask me why I was taking extra cookies. I would have answered that I was saving them for my younger sisters. We were recent immigrants and didn’t get the luxury of cookies so often. But she didn’t. Instead, she made a quick judgment. And though she tried to hide her disapproval, I was able to sense it and be affected by it. I reacted with feelings of shame.

I am not making out my teacher to be some sort of horrible person. She isn’t. What she did was what many adults would do almost unconsciously in the same situations. I’ve done it. You’ve also done it. We’ve done it to other adults and to children. In the greater scheme, this is how I imagine cultural mores and social conduct are trained into children and enforced in adults.

As a sensitive child, I reacted in two ways. First, I learned to inhibit my own actions by imagining what others would think of them beforehand. Second, I made a vow to not judge others in any way. The first was a bad decision to follow in extreme and turned me into a “nice” person; which turned out to not be a very nice thing to do at all. The second, I’ve often failed at and it remains to be seen whether in the end, it is a bad or good decision. I think good and I will try to convince you so.

Why Judging Can Be So Wrong

I have two problems with judging. The first problem is that we judge the motivations of others. We say they did something because they thought or felt a certain way. Can we truly know what someone is thinking or feeling? Even if they tell us, we can’t be sure that they are not liars or that they don’t even know themselves. Most likely, they will tell us rationalizations and justifications that make them appear in the best light.

We are worse when we ascribe negative motivations like hatred to behavior. Supposed a neighbor invited you to her party. At the party, she doesn’t talk to you at all beyond a quick hello and you observe her talking to and laughing with others. You think, she doesn’t talk to me much because she doesn’t like me. But maybe, she was busy being the host and taking care of those whom she thought needed her the most. And she thought that you could take care of yourself and do the mingling on your own. She made a judgment and so did you.

The second problem is that we judge the actions of others. Have you hear the saying, don’t judge people, judge their actions? Well, it can be wrong. Some folks perform what can be considered bad actions for all the right reasons. Others can perform what can be considered good actions for all the wrong reasons. Can you tell which is which? Can you tell if it is neither? I can’t.

Take the over-used example of a person stealing food. Stealing is a bad action. What if their children are starving? The action is still bad, but we wouldn’t judge them as bad persons.

There are some actions that are so detrimental to society, like the killing of another, that judgment must be made and punishment mete out. Laws are enacted to enforce such cases. If you break the law, the fact remains that you broke the law, regardless of your reasons. But it’s not universal. You have civil law for murder (illegal killing). You have military law and international conventions governing war conduct to put limits on the amount of condoned killing by soldiers. Even more unclear, different societies have different ideas of what is illegal and what punishments are appropriate.

The Judging Paradox

Unfortunately, we humans have evolved to judge. We quickly judge if a situation or another person is dangerous or not. We decide to fight or flee. The decision is then automatically applied to future situations that are similar. It is a shortcut for our brains. In the past, when survival was more difficult, it saved our lives and the lives of our families and community countless times. In the present and future, it may cause more problems than it solves.

009ManMirrorI am not advocating getting rid of quick, automated judgments and decisions. If we had to think carefully when responding to each and every event that occurs, we would be so busy that we couldn’t think or do anything new. It is okay to have automated reactions, but the downside is that such reactions may not be appropriate and may even be damaging.

What I suggest we do is to become more conscious of when we may be blindly judging and to re-examine some of our decisions. For when we judge others, does the judgment not reflect on ourselves also?

Reframe, Reframe, And Keep Reframing

The best scenario is not to judge at all. We can try but it’s such a part of our human makeup that it would be impossible to do so all the time. When we have to judge, let us always ascribe the best motivations for actions that we can think of. More than likely, we will be wrong. But if we are going to be wrong, we might as well be wrong in the right way. Or at least, in a way which makes us feel good and helps us to react with our best selves.

I call the above method, to reframe. Our initial judgments will be driven by our emotions and we will reach the most negative conclusion about another’s intentions. We have to catch that initial judgment and reframe it by changing the conclusion to a positive one. For example, you are driving down the freeway and a car cuts in front of you. Heart beating, adrenaline pumping, and furious, you think, what a jerk, he’s doing it on purpose to piss me off, and I’m going to cut him off for revenge.

Quick, do a reframe! Force yourself to think, gosh, his wife’s pregnant, they need to get to the hospital, he’s unsettled and forgot to check his blind spot, and I had better back off because I don’t want to cause an accident on this most auspicious day. Calmed down and with a smile on your face, you immediately hit the brakes with great eagerness… and the car behind you rear-ends your car.

Ugh, ignore the last part. You get the idea. Reframe, reframe, and keep reframing until it becomes a habit. The trick is to catch yourself in the act of making a negative judgment and then to quickly reframe that judgment to a positive one. You will need to monitor your thoughts and feelings to do so. Check out my previous blog about monitoring and accepting thoughts and feelings.

Sometimes, another person’s action will affect you so strongly that you will not want to reframe. We can’t be saints all the time. To handle that, you will first need to acknowledge strongly how that action affects you emotionally, before doing a reframe. Doing so will defuse the negative emotion enough for you to do a reframe, which will then handle the remaining negative energy.

Going back to my earlier example of the party, you feel ignored or slighted because the neighbor did not spend much time talking to you. Express how that action affected you, “I am pissed off that she invited me and now is ignoring me. This is an insult!” Keep expressing how hurt you are until you can do a reframe. I like to think that we can always judge that the action is hurtful to us, but not that the person is a hurtful person.

In the End

With practice, over time, we will become less likely to judge others. We will be more likely to withhold our judgment and opinions. After all, isn’t being judgmental a lot of work? Evolution is not the best at reducing work. It just optimizes what is already there (judging) that works well enough. The more evolved method is to eliminate the work. Judging is extra work we don’t need.

Try your best to avoid judging people because we humans are so complex and messed up, that to get an accurate judgment of a person is beyond our abilities. If you catch yourself judging negatively, do a reframe. Don’t forget that this advice also applies to judging yourself. Treat yourself as well as you treat others. As Mother Teresa said, “… in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

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It’s Not Very Nice To Be Nice

Self No Comments

013ChildNoEatHave you and a friend ever had the following conversation about what to eat for dinner?

Me: Where do you want to eat?
Friend: I dunno. Where do you want to eat?
Me: Anywhere is good. What’s your preference?
Friend: Oh, anything is good.
Me: Uh, how about Persian?
Friend: Nah, I had that yesterday.
Me: How about Italian?
Friend: Italian gives me indigestion.
Me: Hmm, how about Thai?

The above happens when people try to be nice to each other. Just don’t!

In the past, I wanted to be a nice person and tried to be and do things that I thought a nice person would be and do. And that ended up not being a very nice thing to do. I thought that being nice meant to be accommodating and to be willing to do things for others, sometimes at the expense of inconveniencing myself. In the end, I was being dishonest and not so nice to others and myself.

Almost a decade ago, on a trip to Central America, I was being so nice and accommodating that I ended up pissing off my travel companion. She told me to just stop it and tell her the truth. Evidently, I expressed no strong opinions or preferences and she couldn’t engage me as a real person because effectively I had no personality. After a while, it was more than she could bear.

She gave me pause (for which I will be ever thankful) and I took a hard look at my behavior and myself. She was right. In trying to be nice to others, I ended up being dishonest to myself. I didn’t respect my own wants, desires, and needs enough to express and assert them. I wasn’t being true to myself, and that was not being very nice to my friends and family.

Let me clarify for those who might be suffering from the “nice” virus. Being honest and assertive does not mean being confrontational and combative. It just means to express your preferences to others. Share your likes and dislikes. When you say, “I don’t care”, it should really be because you don’t care. Don’t be “nice”, only to resent the outcome. If you feel strongly about something, then take a stand on it. You may not get it, but others will know where you are coming from. They will know you and that is the nicest gift that you can give them.

Being accommodating can transfer the burden of decision making to friends and family. Because I did not express my likes and dislikes in a misguided attempt to put their needs before mine, I made them responsible for the decision and the outcome. They may feel uneasy because they are unsure that what they choose is something I would like. Even though I professed to not care, they know that it is unrealistic to not care all the time. Can you see how unfair and unnecessary this burden is?

Here’s how I would handle the dinner conversation nowadays:

Me: Where do you want to eat?
Friend: I dunno. Where do you want to eat?
Me: I am in the mood for Persian.
Friend: Nah, I had that yesterday.
Me: Ok, tell me what food you don’t want to eat tonight.
       No Mexican or Chinese for me.

Please don’t go to the opposite extreme and become a scrooge. If the outcome is not important to you and you feel like being accommodating, then be accommodating. If you care about the outcome, then ask for it. If you don’t get it, then shoot for compromise instead of accommodation. Compromise is when both teams have some skin in the game, while accommodation is when one team never bothered to play. If I care about the other team (friends and family) playing instead of me winning, the latter would irritate me a lot.

Once I stopped trying to be nice, it felt like a huge burden had lifted. It was very hard work being nice and accommodating all the time. I had more free time for myself because I wasn’t busy doing things for others. Now I relaxingly say what I want and am okay if I need to compromise. And once in a while, when I feel like it, I am very accommodating.

Case in point, here is a conversation that would have gone in a different direction if I had still been trying to be nice:

Friend: Could you give me a lift to the airport?
Me: Sure. It’s only a 15 minutes drive.
Friend: Oh, it’s not that airport; it’s the other one.
Me: You mean the one that is like an hour away?
Friend: Yes. I wanted to save money so got a flight from there.
(In my head: Ugh, so you want to save money, but are okay with me wasting my time and gas money? I don’t think so. Homey don’t play that.)
Me: Sorry, I don’t have the time. Have you considered taking the airport shuttle?

She ended up getting a ride from another friend, a very nice guy whom we both know.

Be a good friend and family member. Express your wants and needs clearly. Respect their needs and wants in return. Don’t be nice, definitely don’t be real nice, just be real.

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My Dying Will

Health 2 Comments

Some might consider this post macabre. Some might consider it funny. For me, it is deadly serious. Not.

When I die, I don’t wish to be a burden to my love ones. So here are some suggestions on what to do:

  1. No need for a showing. Folks can visit me later when I’m in a little jar or box. Or you can take me around to go visiting folks.
  2. No need for embalming and expensive makeup. I’m dead so there’s no point in trying to make me look like I’m just sleeping. Just dress me in whatever clothes I have lying around, preferably clean clothes; I still have some minimal standards.
  3. No need for a nice coffin, get the cheapest you can find. Even a pine box is fine. At that point, comfort is not a concern and I couldn’t care less about what others think. Also, that coffin will be destroyed momentarily.
  4. Cremate me. I’ve already left the body and there is no need to purchase real estate (aka, a cemetery plot) for that body. So, just burn me.
  5. Put my ashes into an empty jar or box, whatever you have on hand; for example, peanut jar, cigar box, etc. If you use a non-air-tight box, you might want to put me into a Ziploc bag to avoid accidental spillage.
  6. Stick me on the mantle or in a cabinet until such time as you no longer require evidence of my past presence or are just doing spring cleaning.
  7. Or bury my ashes in the backyard. Toss my ashes into a lake or the ocean. If you are pressed for time, the toilet is fine. Make sure to flush twice.

There, was that so bad?

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